/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Obsidian Universe (1): The Obsidian Mountain

To Light A Candle

Mercedes Lackey

In To Light a Candle, the Demon Queen sends her forces against her human and elven enemies, sowing distraction and death. In the human City, the Queen's agents work to divide the Council and foment rebellion among the City's citizens. In the countryside, they target the most vulnerable and valuable---the young Elf Prince and the Wild Mages who might be the Demons' most dangerous enemies. To his own surprise, young Kellen, once the disappointing son of the great Mage who leads the City's Mage Council, has become a powerful Knight-Mage. Valued for his bravery and his skills as both wizard and warrior, Kellen joins the Elves' war councils. Yet he cannot convince the City of his birth that it is in terrible danger. Kellen's sister Idalia, a Wild Mage with great healing ability, has pledged her heart to Jermayan, a proud Elven warrior. Someday Idalia will pay a tragic Price for a world-saving work of Wild Magic, but until then, she will claim any joy life can offer her. Jermayan, who has learned much while fighting at Kellen's side and loving the human Idalia, finds that everything changes when he Bonds with a dragon while rescuing the Elf Prince and becomes the first Elven Mage in a thousand years. Furious at her enemies' success with the dragon, the Demon Queen attacks in force. Light struggles against Dark, like flickering candleflames buried deep in the shadow of Obsidian Mountain.

To Light A Candle

Mercedes Lackey

The Obsidian Trilogy 02

contents

Chapter One - In the Forest of Flowers

Chapter Two - A Healing and a Homecoming

Chapter Three - The Banquet in the Garden of Leaf and Star

Chapter Four - In Training at the House of Sword and Shield

Chapter Five - Secrets in the City of Golden Bells

Chapter Six - The Room of Fire and Water

Chapter Seven - Discord in the City of a Thousand Bells

Chapter Eight - Prisoners of Darkness

Chapter Nine - The Council of Fear

Chapter Ten - The Return of the Dragons

Chapter Eleven - The Road Through the Border Lands

Chapter Twelve - To the Crowned Horns of the Moon

Chapter Thirteen - Ondoladeshiron at Last

Chapter Fourteen - Blood and Sorrow

Chapter Fifteen - At the Siege of Stonehearth

Chapter Sixteen - Ghosts upon the Wind

Chapter Seventeen - On the Wings of Dragons

Chapter Eighteen - The Price of Power

Chapter Nineteen - The Wisdom of Betrayal

Chapter Twenty - The Order of Battle

Chapter Twenty-One - Blood on the Moon

Chapter Twenty-Two - Smoke and Storm

Chapter Twenty-Three - Journey’s End

Chapter Twenty-Four - Shadows of the Past

Chapter Twenty-Five - Gifts and Promises

Chapter Twenty-Six - Against All Odds

Epilogue

Chapter One In the Forest of Flowers

KELLEN TAVADON COULD never have imagined fighting a battle so one-sided as this, but he no longer had the energy to spare for despair. Up and around the circumference of the Black Cairn he went, and as he did, the icy wind slowly increased. It seemed to Kellen as if the source of the wind was the obelisk itself, as if it blew from someplace not of this world. As if from a great distance, he could hear inhuman yelping and the sounds of battle. If he looked, he knew he would be able to watch his friends die.

But he refused to look. He could not afford to be distracted from his battle. It took all his concentration to keep his footing on the stairs. Kellen’s teeth chattered uncontrollably in the cold; tears that owed nothing to grief streamed from his eyes and froze along his cheeks and lashes. He gripped Idalia’s keystone hard against his stomach and prayed that it would hold together.

If he had been able to think, he would have been certain that his situation could not be any worse, and then, as a further torment, grit mixed with the frigid wind began to pelt him. Fine sand at first, that left him blinking and half-blind, but soon good-sized pieces of gravel and small rocks that hammered his skin and even drew blood. He could taste grit between his teeth, on his tongue, feel it in his nose, in his lungs, choking him. He pulled his undertunic up over his head. It was hard to breathe through the heavy quilted leather, but as he heard the wind-driven sand hiss over its surface, Kellen was glad he’d buried his head in its folds. Better to be half-stifled than blind. Slowly his tears washed his eyes clean.

Soon it was not just gravel that the wind carried, but rocks the size of a fist. At this rate, he’d be dodging boulders soon. And one direct hit from anything really large and he’d be deadand the fate of Sentarshadeen, and perhaps of all of the Elves, would be sealed.

He needed to protect the keystone as well as his eyes and lungs. Kellen quickly shoved the keystone up under his shirt, and turned toward the wall so it was protected by his body as well. The keystone was as icy against his skin as it had once been warm against his hands. He turned his face against the wall, and crept even more slowly, up the stairs. The sand made them slippery, and he knew Something was hoping he’d fall and break the fragile keystone.

At least the howling of the wind and the booming of the rocks against the stone shut out all sound of the battle below. If it was still going on. If all his friends weren’t dead already.

I won’t look back, Kellen promised himself. Whatever happens, I won’t look back.

It was so unfair for the enemy he faced to be throwing rocks at him! Unfairno, it wasn’t so much that it was unfair. It was humiliating. The Enemy wasn’t even going to bother wasting its Demon warriors on stopping him; he wasn’t an Elven Knight, after all. He wasn’t any sort of a real threat. He meant so little to the Enemy that the Enemy thought it was enough to batter him with a few rocks, certain that he was so cowardly, so worthless, that he would turn tail and run.

That, as much as all the pain and despair, nearly broke Kellen’s spirit.

Only his anger saved him.

Anger is a weapon, as much as your sword.

I’llshowyou!” he snarled through clenched teeth. And went on. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, blind, aching, terrified, but now, above all else, furious, he drove onward.

Then came the worst partwhen the wind and rocks began hitting him from all sides. Kellen realized that must mean he was near the top of the cairn. Groping blindly, his head still muffled in his tunic, he slid his hand along the wall in front of his face, until he touched emptiness. The wind pushed at his fingertips with the force of a river in flood. If he tried to simply walk up to where the obelisk was, the wind would pluck him off and hurl him to the ground.

Very well. Then he would crawl.

Kellen got down on his hands and knees and crawled up the rest of the stairs, brushing the sand away carefully from each step before him. It caked on his abraded hands, and every time he wiped them clean on his tunic, fresh blood welled up from a thousand tiny scratches. And the wind still blew, cold enough now to steal all sensation from his flesh.

He reached a flat place, and crawled out onto it, pushing against the wind.

Suddenly, without warning, the wind stopped. The silence rang in his ears.

“Well, you make a fine sight,” a man said from somewhere above him, sounding amused.

The voice was elusively familiar.

Kellen dragged his tunic down around his neck and stared, blinking, into the watery green light.

He was facing… himself?

Another Kellen stood on the other side of the obelisk, grinning down at him nastily. The point of the obelisk came just to his heart level. This Kellen was sleek and manicuredno one would ever call his smooth brown curls unruly!and dressed in the height of Armethaliehan finery, from his shining half-boots of tooled and gilded leather to his fur-lined half-cape and the pair of jeweled and embroidered silk gloves tucked negligently through his gleaming gilded belt. The cape and gloves were in House Tavadon colors, of course. No one would ever forget which Mageborn City House this young man belonged to, not for an instant.

Slowly, Kellen got to his feet, though his cramped and aching muscles protested. Instantly, Other-Kellen clapped his bare hands over the point of the obelisk, blocking Kellen’s access to it.

Think about what you’re doing,”Other-Kellen urged him. “Really think about it. Now, before it’s too late. You’ve had a chance to taste freedom, and you’ve found it’s a bitter wine. Only power can make it sweet, but you already know the responsibilities that power brings. Even the powerful aren’t really free. The only real freedom we have is of choosing our master, and most people don’t get even that. But you can choose.”

I don’t serve anyone!” Kellen said angrily.

Oh? And you a Wildmage,” Other-Kellen said mockingly. “I should think you would have learned better the moment you opened the Books.”

Kellen snapped his mouth shut abruptly. If this was a fight, he’d just lost the first battle. He did serve the Wild Magic, and so far he’d done exactly what it told him to do. How free did that make him?

“You’ve made some bad choices in the past,” Other-Kellen continued smoothly. “Even you’re willing to admit that. Wouldn’t you like the chance to undo them? To start over, knowing what you know now? You can have that. Few people get that opportunity.

Other-Kellen smiled, and for the first time, Kellen could see his father’s face mirrored in this stranger’s that was his own. The sight shocked and distracted him, even in this moment and in this place. Assurance… competence… or just corruption?

You left Armethalieh because you rebelled against your father’s plans for you, but you know better now, don’t you? Arch-Mage Lycaelon only wants for you what he has always enjoyed himself! And that’s not so bad, now, is it? What does it matter if it takes a bit of groveling and scraping, and a lot of boring make-work to get there? Think about how you used to liveand how you live now. The life of a High Mage has its compensationsand the High Mages were right, back when they walled themselves off in their city. They were right to want to build safeguards against the prices and bargains the Wild Magic required,” his doppelganger said, his voice as silken and sweet as honey, reasonable and logical. Kellen himself had never sounded like that. “What’s so wrong with trying to improve something? They still practice magic, and they do so without the prices that the Wild Magic demands. They give their citizens a good lifeand if life in the Golden City is too restrictive, well, when you’re Arch-Mage, Kellen, you’ll be able to make all the changes you’ve dreamed of.”

That shocked Kellen so much that he almost dropped the keystone. Of all of the things he had imagined and fantasized about, that was never one that had occurred to him!

And you can be Arch-Mage,” the double said, persuasively. “You have the gift and the talent; your father isn’t wrong about that! If everyone must serve, then choose your service. Serve the City. Go back now, beg your father’s forgivenessit won’t be that hard. Give up the Wild Magic. That won’t be hard, either, will it? Step back into the life you should have had, and work for the good of Armethalieh. You’ll have everything you wanted. Just think of all you can do for the City when you return…”

Kellen stared in horrified fascination at his doppelganger. Was this really him? The person he could have beenor could still be?

If he did this, could he even turn the City to help the Elves, and forge a new Alliance as in the old days?

But Jermayan would know what had happened

Shalkan surely would

Vestakia

“Your companions are already dead. You have no one to consider but yourself. No one will know what happened here but you. Isn’t it time you did what you want, for a change? Here is your future, Kellen.” His doppelganger leaned forward, his face wearing a mask of pleasantry, his voice eager, urging. “You have but to reach out and seize it. And you will receive nothing but praise for your actions.”

Now Kellen looked away, down toward the plain below, but everything below the top of the cairn was covered with a thick layer of yellow-green fog. It was as if the rest of the world had vanished. Quickly he looked back at his doppelganger, suspecting a trick, but Other-Kellen had not moved. His doppelganger smiled at Kellen sympathetically, as if guessing the direction of Kellen’s thoughts.

But if you go through with this foolish adventure, your future will be set. If you think you have troubles now, you can’t even begin to imagine what your life is going to be like afterwardassuming you don’t die right here. Think of the Demons. They know your name, Kellen. The Queen and Prince of the Endarkened know who you are. They know all about you, and they’ll find you wherever you go. You won’t have an easy death, or a quick one. Tormentoh, for them, it is the highest form of Art, and they have had millennia to perfect it. You won’t die, but you will long for death with all of your being. For years, Kellen, for years….”

Other-Kellen shuddered in mock-sympathy, his eyes never leaving Kellen’s face.

Kellen’s face. Kellen trembled, remembering his nightmares, knowing they must have fallen far short of the truth.

“Oh, you might survive triggering the keystone. You might even manage to get back to Sentarshadeen alive. And I’m sure your friends the Elves will do their best for you. But it hasn’t really been much of a best so far, has it? They couldn’t even manage to save themselves without a Wildmage or two to help. And when it comes right down to it, they’re going to take care of themselves and their families first once the trouble starts, aren’t they?

I wouldn’t say we’re friends, exactly, but I would say I’m the closest thing to a friend you’ve got. Right here. Right now. Think about it, Kellen. This is your last chance. After this, you have no choices left. Think. Use what you’ve learned. They’ve all tried to keep the truth from you so you wouldn’t know what the stakes are. Think how hard you’ve had to work to find out what little you have. Why is that? So you wouldn’t know enough to make a fair choice,” Other-Kellen said.

Fair, Kellen thought bitterly. Nothing about this is fair. Nothing had ever been fair and out in the open, from the moment he’d found the three Books in the Low Market, and hearing all his secret fears and unworthy hopes in the mouth of this manicured popinjay was the least fair thing of all.

He remembered Jermayan telling him about The Sevenhow when they’d faced down the Endarkened army at the pass of Vel-al-Amion and first beaten them back, the Endarkened had tried to seduce them to the Dark.

As one of the Endarkened was trying to seduce him now. This, then, was their last line of defense, and the most compelling of all.

“Well…” Kellen said, walking closer and lifting the keystone in his hands as if he were about to hand it over. “I guess I really ought to be smart and do what you say.”

The Other-Kellen smiled triumphantly and relaxed, certain of its victory.

“But I’m not going to!” Kellen shouted.

He brought the keystone downhardon the doppelganger’s hands. It howled and recoiled as if it had been burned, jerking its hands back from the point of the obelisk.

And in that moment it, … changed.

The Other-Kellen was gone. In its place stood a Demon.

It—she!towered over Kellen, her wings spread wide. He caught a confused glimpse of blood-red skin, of horns and claws, but she was barely there for an instant, for in the moment that the Demon had released her hold on the obelisk, Kellen slammed the keystone down over the tip of the stone.

The instant the keystone touched the obelisk, the Demon howled in fury and vanished, her cheated rage a whiplash across his senses. For a moment he was blind and deaf in a paroxysm of pain. He cringed, but kept his hands on the stone.

They had not counted on his experience with being lied to. And perhaps that was the greatest weapon Lycaelon Tavadon had given to him.

I know a lie when I hear it, you bastards! His father had lied to him so smoothly, so convincingly, and so often, that Kellen had learned every guise that a lie could wear.

Kellen trembled all over, realizing in that moment how close the Demon had come to winning. But it hadn’t.

Now it was up to him. Despite everything he had already gone through, the hardest part was still to come. Hardestand yet, in its way, the easiest. All he had to do was surrendersurrender his will, surrender his power, and put it all in the service of something far outside himself.

He took a deep breath and reached down into the keystone with his Wildmage senses, touching the power waiting within. The power leaped toward him eagerly, but Kellen knew that he was not to be its destination. Gently he turned it toward the obelisk.

He felt the obelisk’s resistance, and pushed harder, adding the last of his strength and all of his will to the keystone’s power, forcing the link into being.

One by one, the obelisk’s defenses gave way. Kellen felt the triggering force begin to rush through him and into the obelisk. He kept his palms pressed against the keystone’s sides; without him to maintain the link, the spell would be broken before the Barrier was breached. And all of itthe journey, the others’ sacrificewould all have been for nothing.

Then, breakthrough.

And his body spasmed, convulsed, his mouth going open in a silent scream.

This was worse than anything he could have imagined. He felt as if he were being struck by bolt after bolt of lightning, a torrent of energy that somehow went on and on and on, searing its way through him.

His hands were burning. Holding the keystone was like clutching red-hot metal fresh from the forge, and there was no respite, no mercy. He could smell the pork-like scent of his cooking flesh, could feel blood running down his wrists as blisters swelled up and burst, and then, in a thunderclap of agony, the fire was everywhere, coursing through his veins with every beat of his heart.

Kellen howled unashamedly, great wracking sobs of hopeless agony. And he held on. Perhaps it was stubbornness, but he had always been stubborn. And he would not give the Demons this victory.

Then came a single thought, emerging through the fire and the pain.

I’m going to die.

He realized at that moment that this was the price of the spell, the rest of the cost. It must be. A Wildmage’s life, Idalia must have known when she created the spell that the price of casting it would be the life of the one who triggered it. His life. Kellen felt a flash of pride in his sister at keeping the painful secret so well.

But he would have to consent. No Wildmage could give up that which belonged to anothernot without turning to the Dark.

She had known the price of the magic, but she could only have hoped he would pay it. Well, he wasn’t going to let her down. He would be everything she had hoped. And if he had been an uncouth barbarian to the Elves of Sentarshadeen, at least he would be an uncouth barbarian whose name would live on in their legends forever.

If that’s the price, he shouted silently to the Powers, then I will pay it! I wish I didn’t have to, but I swear I pay it willingly and without reservation!

But more than ever, having surrendered his life, he yearned to keep it. To see the sun again, to feel the gentle summer wind, to walk through the forest or drink a cup of morning tea. But all those things had their price, and so did keeping them. And some prices were too high to pay. The price of his life would be the destruction of all those things, soon or late. The price of keeping his life would be victory for the Endarkened.

No. Never!

My life for the destruction of the Barrier. A fair bargain. Done. Done!

Then the pain was too great for thought.

Abruptly the obelisk began to swell, its stark lines distorting as if the malign power it contained was backing up inside it, filling it beyond its capacity. Its swelling carried him upward; he collapsed against its surface, clinging to the keystone, and still it swelled. Now the stone was a baneful pus-yellow color, nearly spherical. Kellen lay upon its surface , unable to preserve the thought of anything beyond the need to maintain the link.

The whole cairn shook like a tree in a windstorm.

The toxic light flared lightning-bright.

And for Kellen, there was sudden darkness and a release from all pain.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THEN, of course, there was a return to life, and pain. And since the latter meant that he still had the former, it was less unwelcome than it might have been. And through the pain, the faces of Vestakia and Jermayan—so they had survived!

It had all been worth it then. Only afterward did it occur to him that the compounded trouble he had fallen back into might make him begin to regret that return to life…

—«♦«♦»♦»—

IT had taken them only a sennight to travel from Sentarshadeen—easternmost of the Nine Cities—into the heart of the Lost Lands to face the power of Shadow Mountain.

The return trip took longer, though at least nobody was trying to kill them this time. That did not mean, however, that the journey was less trying. If anything, it was physically harder.

To begin with, it was raining—although rain, Kellen reflected grimly, wearily, was a mild word to apply to the water that had been falling from the sky nonstop for the last moonturn.

It was just a good thing that Elven armor didn’t—couldn’t—rust.

Jermayan, of course, didn’t mind the rain at all. But the Elven lands had been suffering under the effects of a deadly spell-inflicted drought for almost a year. Kellen had only spent a few days in Sentarshadeen before heading north toward the Barrier, and even what little he’d seen of the Elves’ desperate attempts to save their city and the forest surrounding it had been enough to daunt him. How much more terrifying must it have been for an Elven Knight, one of the land’s protectors, to watch everything he loved wither and die for sennight upon sennight, knowing there was nothing he could do about it?

No wonder Jermayan welcomed the rain.

Vestakia didn’t seem to mind the weather all that much either. But then, Vestakia had spent her entire life living nearly alone in a little shepherd’s hut in the wildest part of the Lost Lands, with only a few goats for company. A little rain—or even a lot of rain—probably didn’t bother her too much.

But it felt increasingly like torture to Kellen. For one thing, he still wasn’t all that used to uncontrolled weather. He’d grown up in the Mage-City of Armethalieh, where everything—including the weather—was governed by the rule of the High Mages. He’d never actually seen rain until he’d been Banished by the High Council for his possession of the three Books of Wildmagery—and his Banishment hadn’t been that long ago. He’d never had to stand out in the rain in his life.

But now… well, there wasn’t anything like a roof for leagues and leagues, probably. Even when they stopped to rest, they never really got out of the rain. The most they could manage was to drape some canvas over themselves, or, if they were lucky, find a half-cave, or shelter under a tree.

To add to his misery, he was still suffering from the injuries he had gotten in his battle to break the Barrier-spell. He’d been so sure that his life would be the price of the spell that awakening afterward had been a shock. After all, every kind of magic required payment, and the first lesson the Wildmage learned was that each spell of the Wild Magic came with a cost, both in the personal energy of the caster, and in the form of a task the Wildmage must perform.

But in this case, it seemed his willingness to sacrifice his life had been enough. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the cost had been his willingness to live and endure.

If you can call this living, he thought, as he rode along behind the others in the direction of home. His injuries had been so severe that it had been a sennight before he’d been able to ride at all, and his burned hands were so heavily bandaged that he couldn’t possibly wear his armored gauntlets, much less hold a sword. Any protecting that was going to be done was going to have to be done by Jermayan, and maybe Shalkan, and possibly Vestakia; he was strictly along as baggage.

He had become so used to pain that now he could hardly remember a time when he had lived without it as a constant presence. And underneath the pain was fear, fear he never openly expressed, but was constantly with him. The fear of what was underneath those bandages.

He would much rather dwell on the minor misery of the rain.

His heavy hooded oiled-wool cloak was soaked through. His heavy silk sur-coat was wet. The unending rain had managed to make it through both of those layers and even through the tiny joins and chinks in the delicately-jointed Elven armor that he wore, soaking the padding beneath.

It wasn’t that he was cold—he wasn’t, even with winter coming on. All the layers he wore saw to that. But he’d never felt so soggy in his life.

He rested the heels of his hands—wrapped in goatskin mittens to keep the bandages dry, and medicated to the point where the pain was only a dull nagging—against the front of his saddle, gazing around himself at the transformed landscape. Everything looked so different now! On the outward trip, they’d been navigating mostly by his Wildmage intuition to find the direction of the Barrier; his sister Idalia, who was a much stronger Wildmage, hadn’t been able to locate it by scrying, and until he and Jermayan had linked up with Vestakia, they’d had no way of sensing it directly. So for the first part of the trip, they’d been traveling mostly by guess… and through a far different countryside than this.

The rain had changed everything about the landscape that had once been so parched and barren. There were lakes where none had been before, meadows had become impassable swamps, trickling streams had become rivers, and all the landmarks he’d memorized on the outward trip were gone. On their return passage, they’d had to rely on Jermayan’s familiarity with the Elven lands and Valdien’s and Shalkan’s instincts to find them a route that wasn’t underwater or under mud.

“Are we there yet?” he muttered under his breath.

“Sooner than you think,” Shalkan answered.

Kellen sighed. He hadn’t thought Shalkan would be able to hear him over the sound of the rain. But by now, he should know better than to underestimate the keenness of the unicorn’s hearing.

“How long?” he asked.

“Less than an hour. We’ve already passed the first scouts from Sentarshadeen. They’ve probably gone back to warn the welcoming party to be ready to greet us.” The unicorn’s voice was bland, but Kellen’s stomach clenched in a tight knot of tension. He’d lost all track of how long they’d been traveling, and hadn’t had any idea they were so close. Now the aching of his body was joined by the clenching of his gut. They had gone out a party of three. They were returning a party of four. And one of the four was not going to be welcomed with open arms by the Elves.

“Does he know?” Kellen asked. He nodded to where Jermayan rode on Valdien, with Vestakia—thoroughly bundled up, of course—sitting behind him on the destrier’s saddle. At the end of a long tether, the cream-colored pack mule ambled along behind Valdien, every inch of her covered with the black mud splashed up from the road. At least once they were back in Sentarshadeen it would be someone else’s job to try to get her—and Valdien—clean.

“He saw them, I imagine,” Shalkan said, without adding the obvious: that naturally Jermayan would recognize exactly where he was, even if Kellen didn’t. And that Elven senses were much keener than Kellen’s. Especially now, when most of Kellen’s awareness was wrapped in pain.

Almost home—at least, as much home as Sentarshadeen was. Dry, out of the rain, and a chance to sleep in a proper bed again. And most of all, a proper Healer to deal with his hands and anything else that was wrong with him. Kellen tried to look forward to those things.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of things about their welcome home that he wasn’t looking forward to. And unfortunately, he was not really certain that a Healer would be able to set his hands right again.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

EVEN at the beginning of winter, the Elven valley bloomed. The silver sheen of the unicorn meadow had turned to deep emerald when the rains came, and the parched city had come back to life.

Released from their desperate hopeless task of attempting to irrigate the forest lands surrounding their canyon home, the Elves had resumed their patrols of the deep woods and the extended borders of their homeland, for now, more than ever, it was vitally necessary, with their ancient Enemy roused to life once more. And only a short time ago, one of those scout-pairs—a unicorn and his rider— had brought word to Queen Ashaniel that Kellen and Jermayan had been sighted upon the road.

Idalia had been about to scry for news of them when the Queen’s message was brought to her. She had immediately gone to the House of Leaf and Star, both to thank the Queen for the news and to hear more of it than the scouts had brought to her.

Though the House of Leaf and Star was—in every sense that humans understood the word—the palace of the King and Queen of the Elves, it was not even as grand as the house Idalia had grown up in. Elven buildings were not meant to be imposing, but to be suitable, and although the House of Leaf and Star was one of the largest structures in all the Elven Lands, it still managed to look welcoming and homelike. It was a low, deep-eaved house built of silvery wood and pale stone, and age and strength radiated from it as from an ancient living tree.

By the time she had crossed the long roofed portico, her cloak and wide-brimmed Mountain Trader hat had shed most of their burden of water, and her boots had dried themselves upon the intricate design of slatted wood with which the portico floor was inlaid—crafted for just that purpose, as all the works of the Elves managed to combine beauty and practicality with flawless ease.

She was not surprised to see the door open before she reached it.

“I See you, Idalia Wildmage,” the Elven doorkeeper said politely.

“I See you, Sakathirin,” Idalia answered with equal politeness. Elvenkind was both an ancient and a long-lived race, and except under extraordinary circumstances, its members were unfailingly courteous and unhurried. Part of the courtesy was the assumption that a person might not wish to be noticed; the greeting I See you was meant to convey acknowledgment of one’s presence, with the implicit right being that one did not have to respond if one wished to be left alone. “I have come to share news with the Lady Ashaniel, if she would See me as well.”

“The Lady Ashaniel awaits you with joy,” Sakathirin said gravely. “Be welcome at our hearth.” He stepped back to allow Idalia to enter.

The rain pattering down on the skylight echoed through the tall entry-hall, its music a counterpoint to the splashing of the fountain that once more bubbled and sang beneath it. Idalia smiled, seeing that reflecting pool was once again filled with fish, their living forms mirroring the mosaic they swam above, that of fish swimming in a river. The Elves delighted in this form of shadowplay, combining living things with their copies so expertly that it was often hard for mere humans to tell where Nature ended and Elven artistry began.

By the time Sakathirin had disposed of her cloak and hat, one of Ashaniel’s ladies-in-waiting had appeared to conduct Idalia to the Queen’s day-room.

In Armethalieh, such a room would have been called a “solar,” but that was hardly an appropriate word for this room today. The walls were made of glass—hundreds of tiny panes, all held together in a bronze latticework—and the room seemed to hang in space, surrounded by a lacework made of light and air.

And water.

Raindrops starred the palm-sized windows, and streaks of rain ran down the outside of the glass like a thousand miniature rivers. The effect might have been chilly, despite the warmth of the lamps and braziers that filled the room, save for the fact that the room’s colors were so warm. The ceiling had been canopied in heavy velvet—not pink, which would only have been garish—but a deep warm taupe, rich as fur. The pillows and carpets picked up those colors and added more: deep violets, ember-orange, a dark clear blue shot through with threads of silver… autumn colors, and those of winter, concentrated and intensified until they kindled the room.

The Queen herself was dressed in shades of amber, every hue from clear pale candle-flame yellow to the deep ruddy glow of sunset’s heart. Her hair was caught back in a net of gold and fire opals, and she wore a collar of the same stones about her throat.

“Idalia,” she said, smiling and setting aside her writing desk as she indicated a place beside her on the low couch upon which she sat. “Come and sit beside me, and we will talk. Your brother and Jermayan will not reach the edge of the city for some time yet, and there is much to do in preparation. They seem well enough, so Imriban said,” she added, answering the question Idalia could not, in politeness, ask. “Though Imriban said that the Wildmage rides as one lately injured.”

Idalia came and seated herself, taking care that her damp buckskins didn’t touch Ashaniel’s elaborate velvet gown.

“It would be good to hear all of what Imriban had to say,” she offered carefully.

Learning to speak in accordance with the dictates of Elven politeness was one of the hardest lessons for the humans who came to live among them to learn. The closest it was possible to get to asking a question was to announce your desire to know something, and hope your hearer took pity on you.

“Imriban said…” Ashaniel paused, and for the first time seemed to be choosing her words with great care. “Imriban said that they do not travel alone.”

“Not alone—” It was a struggle to keep from turning her words into a question, but Idalia managed. “It puzzles me to hear that,” she finally said.

“It puzzles me as well,” Ashaniel admitted. “The one who rides with them rides cloaked and hooded beyond all seeing. And it occurs to me to wish that perhaps Imriban had been less… impetuous.”

And maybe stopped and spoken to them, instead of just tearing back to Sentarshadeen to bring the news that they were on the way. Idalia finished the Queen’s unspoken thought silently. It was hard to imagine who Kellen and Jermayan could have run into on their quest, and why they’d bring whoever it was back to Sentarshadeen.

“I suppose we’ll know soon enough,” she offered reluctantly.

“Indeed,” Ashaniel said with a sigh. “And yet… it will be well should we meet them as close upon the road as we may, so Andoreniel has said. Even now, a place is being prepared at the edge of the Flower Forest, where we may receive them in all honor.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

“LOOKS like they couldn’t wait to meet us,” Shalkan said dryly, dipping his head to indicate the flash of yellow in the distance with his horn.

“What’s that?” Kellen said superfluously.

Jermayan cleared his throat warningly before answering. “A pavilion.”

Kellen took the hint. On the road, their manners had been free and easy— War Manners, Jermayan had called it. The Elven Knight had set aside the elaborate code of Elven formality; he’d asked Kellen direct questions, and Kellen had been allowed, even encouraged, to question Jermayan directly in return.

But they were back in Civilization now, and he guessed he’d have to get used to it all over again. It hardly seemed fair. He’d gone through so much—and why must he be burdened with this stifling formality now, when it was all he could do to pretend that he was certain he would be all right?

Well, he’d better warn Vestakia.

He was trying to figure out the best way to phrase it when Jermayan beat him to it.

“In Elven lands, except in time of war, or dire need, to question another directly is considered to be unmannerly. I do not say that this is good or bad, merely that this is our custom, and perhaps we are fonder of our customs than we ought to be,” Jermayan observed, as if speaking to Valdien. “Perhaps it is a failing in us. Perhaps it is merely that when one lives as long as an Elf, custom becomes habit, and habit is often so difficult to break that one gives over the attempt.”

Kellen heard Vestakia’s muffled snort of nervous laughter. “I don’t think I’m going to be asking anyone any questions anytime soon, Jermayan. I’ll count myself lucky if they don’t fill me full of arrows on sight.”

“That they will not,” Jermayan said, his voice filled with grim promise now.

As they rode closer, Kellen could see the yellow pavilion more clearly.

It was rectangular, and quite large—large enough for them to ride right inside, as Kellen suspected they were meant to. Colored pennants flew from the centerpost and from all four corners—and whether from the artfulness of their construction, or from a touch of the “small magics” the Elves still commanded— they did fly, and were not simply sodden rain-soaked rags wrapped around the gilded tent posts. The tent was trimmed in scarlet, and the tent ropes that held it firm against the buffeting winds were scarlet as well.

In the grey gloom of the day, the lamps inside the walls of yellow silk made it glow like the lanterns the Elves hung outside their homes at dusk, casting shadows of tables and moving bodies against the fabric.

As they came closer, a flap in the near side of the pavilion began to rise. Kellen saw two Elves in full armor walk it out and peg it into place with tall gilded poles, so that it formed a sort of canopy entrance. Now he could see into the pavilion, and see that there was some kind of flooring as well. Trust the Elves to do everything… thoroughly.

They rode forward, into the tent.

The sudden cessation of the rain drumming on his head felt wonderful. Kellen glanced quickly around as he kicked his feet free of Shalkan’s stirrups and swung his leg over the back of the saddle. It was awkward not being able to use his hands, but he managed.

Idalia was there, and it looked like all the cream of the nobility had turned out to meet them as well, all wearing their finest robes and jewels. There were a few Elves wearing armor like Jermayan’s, but even their colors blended into the harmonious whole: nothing clashed, nothing was out of place.

Both Ashaniel and Andoreniel were present, dressed in what Kellen thought of as full Court robes—Ashaniel in gold, Andoreniel in bronze—along with several of their counselors, and—

Kellen!

He’d barely steadied himself on his feet when a small bundle of energy detached himself from his nurse’s skirts and ran forward, flinging his arms about Kellen’s waist.

“You came back! I told them all you’d come back!” Sandalon said defiantly.

“Of course I came back,” Kellen said, patting the young Elven prince’s back awkwardly with one of his goatskin mitts. “And I brought Jermayan back, too.”

“He’s got someone with him,” Sandalon said, with a young child’s directness.

Kellen turned, to see that Jermayan had dismounted from Valdien, and was lifting Vestakia down from the saddle. As he did, her hooded cloak fell back, and her face was exposed.

She grabbed for the hood, but it was too late. Everyone there had seen.

“A Demon! Jermayan brings a Demon here!” Tyendimarquen gasped. All around him, the pavilion was filled with frightened whispers as the Elves drew back.

Lairamo rushed forward and grabbed Sandalon, the Elven nurse snatching the boy up into her arms and hurrying back behind Andoreniel and Ashaniel.

“Jermayan, you will explain yourself,” Andoreniel demanded, his voice harsh.

Before he answered, Jermayan made sure that Vestakia was steady on her feet—and then, very deliberately, drew the hood of the cloak back so that all could see her face.

Her skin was the rosy-red of ripe cherries; her short curly hair a darker shade of the same red, and her ears were as pointed as an Elf’s. Pale gold horns sprouted from just above her slanting eyebrows and curved back over her head. Her eyes were the same yellow-gold as a cat’s, with the same narrow slitted pupils. All these things, everyone knew, were the marks of the Endarkened, the evil race that was the enemy to all that lived and walked in sunlight. But despite her appearance, Vestakia was no Demon. And had anyone bothered to look past the mask of her face, they would have seen her expression—frightened, pleading, open, and desperately hoping for some kind of acceptance.

“Lord Andoreniel, Lady Ashaniel, I bring before you Vestakia, an ally, without whose help the Barrier would not have fallen,” Jermayan said evenly, turning to face the other Elves. “She is without Taint, a fellow-victim of Them, and I have promised her refuge here.”

Shalkan took a step backward, toward Vestakia. Knowing what was expected of her, Vestakia placed a hand on his neck, her scarlet fingers sinking into his soft silvery fur. At this, the murmurings from the gathered Elves broke out anew. Everyone knew that the touch of a unicorn was death to Demonkind. If Vestakia were truly what she seemed, she should not be able to touch Shalkan.

But it wasn’t enough. Andoreniel was shaking his head.

“No. You have promised that which you cannot fulfill, Jermayan son of Malkirinath. She will not enter the city.”

“Then we’re leaving.”

For a moment Kellen wondered who’d spoken, then realized it was him. But the words felt right. The decision felt right. And—all right, he needed a Healer, but surely Idalia would follow them and fix him, even if they left. Surely—

He glanced at Shalkan.

“I’m with you,” the unicorn said.

“And I,” Jermayan said firmly.

“We won’t stay where all of us aren’t wanted,” Kellen said, locking eyes with Andoreniel. “Without Vestakia’s help, the Barrier would still be standing. She’s the one who found it for us. She—and Jermayan, and Shalkan—protected me while I destroyed it. No matter what she looks like, she isn’t one of Them. She’s as human as I am. So—”

“There’s a simple way to solve all of this.”

Idalia stepped forward, into the open space between the new arrivals and the Elves of Sentarshadeen.

“If you won’t take the word of an Elven Knight, a unicorn, and a… Knight-Mage… for the fact that Vestakia bears no Taint, it would be good to hear that my word will suffice. There are simple tests I can perform, right here in the Flower Forest, to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt whether she can bring any harm to Sentarshadeen—if you will trust me and accept my judgment in this matter,” Idalia announced matter-of-factly.

Kellen felt a wave of relief wash over him, and saw the tension ease in Andoreniel’s face as well.

“Of course we will trust you, Idalia,” Andoreniel said, bowing slightly. “We are in your debt.”

Andoreniel might feel that way, but Kellen doubted everyone there shared his feelings. Elven expressions were notoriously difficult for mere humans to decipher, but the tension in the pavilion was thick enough to cut with a sword.

“Kellen?” Idalia went on, turning to Kellen and Jermayan. “Will you abide by my judgment as well?”

Though Kellen was the one she asked—for the sake of politeness—the question included both of them, and it was Jermayan who answered first.

“I have no doubt of what you will find, Wildmage,” Jermayan said austerely.

“Well, I, uh… yeah,” Kellen said. He knew Idalia wouldn’t lie, and he knew Vestakia wasn’t Demon-tainted. So how could she be a danger to Sentarshadeen?

“Go with her, child,” Jermayan said softly to Vestakia. “She will do you no harm.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THIS was not the grand reunion she had envisioned between herself and Jermayan, Idalia thought with a flash of irritation, as she settled her hat more firmly upon her head and led Vestakia out of the pavilion and into the rain once more.

Trust Kellen to manage to work a few surprises into a simple homecoming— and to come home a Knight-Mage, as well!

He was thinner than he’d been when he’d left. There were shadows and hollows in his face that hadn’t been there even a scant few sennights before. And he’d found his way into his magic—his own magic. What he had become was unmistakable in the sight of any Wildmage.

A Knight-Mage. The rarest kind of Wildmage, only appearing in a time of direst need. If they’d needed any more proof that they were all in deep trouble, Kellen’s manifestation of Knight-Mage powers should provide it. But despite that, she found it in her heart to be happy for him, because for the first time since her little brother had been dropped back on her doorstep through the auspices of an Outlaw Hunt, she sensed that Kellen had a real sense of his place in the world, of who he was and what his purpose was.

It was just too bad it was so very dangerous…

She and Vestakia reached the edge of the Flower Forest, and Idalia led Vestakia beneath its leafy canopy. The force of the rain was muted almost at once, to a gentle patterning on the dense canopy of leaves.

Though it was late autumn, the Flower Forest was in full leaf. Since the destruction of the great Elven forests in the Great War, many of the trees that grew in the Elven Flower Forests no longer grew anywhere else in the world, and the Flower Forests—as had the great Elven forests of which they were the only survivals—paid little heed to the turning of the seasons.

Thick moss cushioned the ground beneath their feet, and the air was appreciably warmer within the forest than it had been outside. The air was filled with the spicy scent of the trees and the rich fragrance of their flowers.

“It’s so beautiful,” Vestakia breathed in wonder, staring about herself in awe. “I never… I was raised in the Wild Hills, you see. I saw forests when we rode south, and Kellen said that there were even larger forests further south, but…”

“Well, nothing could really prepare you for the Flower Forest,” Idalia said kindly. “There isn’t really anything anywhere like a Flower Forest… except maybe another Flower Forest.”

Vestakia giggled nervously. “Are there many of those?”

“Well, there are nine Elven cities, and every Elven city has a Flower Forest, so there are probably at least nine,” Idalia said gravely. “I’ve only seen two of the Elven cities—counting this one—so I can’t say for sure.”

“It must be wonderful to be able to travel and see things,” Vestakia said, sounding very young. Idalia wondered just how old she was. It was hard to tell, given the girl’s rather exotic appearance, but she didn’t seem to be much older than Kellen was.

They stopped in a little clearing, where the rain had made a small pool. Tiny white and purple flowers starred the deep green moss about its verge. The forest canopy stretched overhead, protecting them from the rain.

“We didn’t actually have to come all the way in here,” Idalia said, “but I thought you’d like a little privacy. Elves can be rather daunting when you meet a lot of them for the first time. Although you and Jermayan seem to get on well enough.”

“Oh.” Abruptly recalled to the reason they’d come to the forest, Vestakia regarded Idalia nervously with wide golden eyes.

Idalia reached into her bag and pulled out a small flask, offering it to the girl.

“Here. Have a drink. It’s just brandy and hard cider. My name’s Idalia, by the way, if you didn’t catch it back there in the tent. I’m Kellen’s sister.”

“Yes,” Vestakia said, unstoppering the flask and drinking gratefully before returning it to Idalia. “He told me about you—a little. You’re a Wildmage. My mother was a Wildmage, too.”

Idalia’s eyes widened a little at that, but she said nothing. So Vestakia’s mother was a Wildmage, was she? Even more reason for Kellen and Jermayan to trust her.

“And how did you come to find my brother?” Idalia asked. She drank in turn, and as she slipped the flask back into her bag, she closed her fingers about a charged keystone.

Show me truth, she commanded.

“Oh, I didn’t find Kellen,” Vestakia said simply. “He found me. He rescued me from a bandit who was stealing my goats—and then I went with him and Jermayan to the Barrier, just as they said. They never would have found it without me,” she added proudly.

All at once her shoulders seemed to droop with more than weariness.

“Jermayan told me his people would accept me here. But… I do not think they will. No one will, when I look the way I do!”

The keystone spell had told Idalia nothing, which was in itself an answer. The truth was already here for her to see.

“They’re afraid,” Idalia said neutrally. “But tell me the rest—if you’ve known my brother for any length of time at all, you’ll know he’s miserably bad at telling a story, and if I wait to hear the rest of your tale from him I might very well wait forever!”

It took very little prodding to get the rest of Vestakia’s story out of her, of how her mother, a Wildmage, had been seduced unawares by the Prince of Shadow Mountain; how discovering that she was pregnant with a half-Demon child, she called upon the Wild Magic to help her… and been offered a choice.

The unborn child could be completely hers in spirit, and its Demon-father’s in body; or its father’s in spirit, yet human in body. Vestakia’s mother had made the harder choice; Vestakia had a human spirit, but a Demon’s body. To keep her unborn child from being slain at birth, Vestakia’s mother had fled with her sister deep into the Lost Lands, where Vestakia had been born. There Vestakia had lived alone after both women had died, until Kellen had found and rescued her.

Her Demon-father, of course, continued to hunt for her, but Vestakia had one great gift that kept her safe, though it came at a price. She could sense the presence of Demons, because they made her ill. The closer they were, the greater her distress, and she learned quickly to hide whenever she felt a hint of their presence.

“And then I found—when Kellen asked me to try—that my gift worked just the same way with the Demon magic, if the spell is strong enough. So we found the Barrier,” Vestakia said, her voice a mixture of triumph and remembered horror. “Jermayan saved my life there. And Kellen… Kellen saved all of us,” she said softly.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THERE was a moment of awkward silence after Idalia and Vestakia left, and Kellen wasn’t quite sure what to do next. At least he was sure that everything was going to turn out all right. Of course Idalia would find that there was nothing wrong with Vestakia, and they could all stay. Of course. Idalia could do anything she set her mind to.

And if he had to—well, wait until Jermayan told them the whole story of destroying the Barrier. Elven custom would force them into such overwhelming obligation to him that they would probably do anything he asked of them. For once, the intricate dance of Elven custom would work in his favor, for by the time Vestakia got enough accustomed to the Elves that she would be able to tell when welcome was forced and when it was not, it would be too late, for they would have discovered for themselves just how worthy of their trust she was, and the welcome would be real.

Jermayan settled the matter, removing his cloak and handing it to another Elf who seemed to appear out of nowhere. Another arrived to take his sword and shield, then Jermayan removed his helmet and gauntlets, handing them off in turn before moving to Kellen’s side.

It was a little embarrassing—okay, a lot embarrassing—to have to just stand there while Jermayan removed his cloak, helmet, shield, and sword for him, but Kellen couldn’t really do any of those things for himself with his hands in the goatskin mitts. And he knew that only nervous tension was keeping him on his feet now.

“Come and sit,” Jermayan said softly, taking him by the elbow.

When they stepped forward, the waiting Elves settled gracefully into their places, just as if they’d rehearsed every motion for years. There was a long table draped in heavy damask set along the right side of the pavilion—the left side apparently being reserved for the comfort of the animals—with simple wooden chairs clustered around it.

“You must be weary after your long journey,” Ashaniel said when they had seated themselves.

Looking across the pavilion, Kellen could see that servants—if there were servants among the Elves, something he still wasn’t completely sure of—were unsaddling Valdien and removing Lily’s packsaddle, and even helping Shalkan off with his armor and saddle. That wouldn’t make it easy for them to leave in a hurry, if they had to, but Elves did not hurry. Even if they were angry, Kellen supposed.

“It was a journey I did not think we would live to complete,” Jermayan answered somberly. “But Leaf and Star favored us, and brought us safely home again.”

“And you, Kellen Knight-Mage. I trust that you also fare well,” Ashaniel said, pouring cups of wine with her own hands and setting one in front of each of them.

“Well enough, Lady Ashaniel,” Kellen said, though “well” was nothing like what he felt. Elven custom, Elven courtesy; he was surrounded by them, and pulled along as if by a strong current he could not hope to swim against. He pulled the goatskin mitts off and carefully set them in his lap before reaching for the cup with both hands. It was awkward, but he managed. His hands were still numb, but now that he wasn’t soaked to the bone, the pain was getting worse, and he was beginning to long for something to take the edge off, at least. “I do wish things weren’t quite so… damp… though,” he said ruefully. He took a sip of the wine. It would probably help.

“Idalia says that soon the rain will turn to snow,” Ashaniel said, smiling, “which will not be quite as—damp. And by the spring the weather will perhaps have returned to its accustomed ways. It gladdens my heart that you have returned to see our city as it should be seen—and soon you will be healed of the hurts you have taken in our service.”

Kellen glanced down at his hands. Only the very tips of his fingers were visible in the thick cocoon of bandage, and Vestakia and Jermayan had made sure he never got a good look at them on the infrequent occasions they changed the bandages. He wondered just how badly his hands had been burned, back there at the obelisk. Very badly, if the pain he felt whenever the salve started to wear off was any indication. So badly his mind itself flinched away from thinking about it.

“I’m certain that is so,” he said politely. It was hard, very hard, to sit here making polite conversation when what he wanted was to down another of those pain-killing potions, soak in a hot bath, then sleep for, oh, a year or so…

Shalkan came wandering over, and stuck his head over Kellen’s shoulder. “Those little iced cakes look delicious,” he said pointedly. Shalkan had a notorious sweet-tooth, one that the unicorn indulged at every opportunity. This time, however, he was going to have to wait. Kellen couldn’t manage anything as small as a cake with his bandaged hands, and everyone else was too busy making polite noises at each other while they listened for Idalia’s return to favor him with a treat.

“If the snow is to be heavy this year, then the Winter Running Dance should be exceptionally fine,” Jermayan observed.

All this politeness was enough to make Kellen want to scream. Except that he hadn’t enough energy to do more than sit there, look solemn, and nod. Even his nervous energy was beginning to flag.

“Indeed it should,” Ainalundore said, from her position behind the Queen. From her tone, the Counselor greeted the introduction of such an innocuous subject with great relief.

To Kellen’s faint disbelief, the Elves, Jermayan included, embarked upon a lively discussion of forthcoming entertainments to be held in Sentarshadeen— just as if the threat of Shadow Mountain wasn’t still hanging over all of their heads, just as if they weren’t all dying for Idalia and Vestakia to come back. Just as if they were totally oblivious to the fact that Kellen himself was about to fall over from exhaustion.

“Cake,” said Shalkan, “is very nice. One could spear a cake with a fork, if one was so inclined, and place it on a saucer, and I could eat it.”

Shameless. But it made him smile, and he did exactly what Shalkan wanted, now that he knew how he could manage to maneuver things. And out of politeness, he ate a cake himself, and discovered that the sugary thing gave him a little more energy. He sat and listened, carefully feeding Shalkan most of the plate of little iced cakes—and taking one or two for himself—as he finished his cup of wine. The wine did help; he would have liked more, but he was afraid in his current state he could slip from pleasantly numb to clearly intoxicated with very little warning, and that would probably horrify the Elves. Sandalon was still safe in Lairamo’s clutches, somewhere out of sight at the back of the pavilion.

What was taking Idalia so long? Surely she just had to look at Vestakia to know that she was Good?

But there was no point in starting an argument here and now, particularly one Kellen was pretty sure he’d already won. Andoreniel and Ashaniel had promised to abide by whatever Idalia said, and their word was Law here.

“They’re coming.” Shalkan’s breath tickled Kellen’s ear.

Kellen glanced up. A few moments later, Idalia and Vestakia appeared in the doorway of the pavilion.

All conversation stopped.

Idalia approached the table with Vestakia, her arm around the girl’s shoulders. Kellen had the feeling that without that support, Vestakia might have run.

“I have searched thoroughly with the Wild Magic,” Idalia said without preamble. “Vestakia is not one of the Endarkened, nor does she bear Demon-taint.”

Jermayan half-rose from his seat. Idalia held up her free hand, indicating that she had more to say.

“Yet, by her heritage, the Endarkened do have a kind of link to her. They can affect her physically by sympathetic magic, though she will sense anything they attempt, through the gift passed to her by her Wildmage mother. And for this reason, anyone who has been in intimate contact with her is similarly at risk.”

Here Idalia broke off, eyeing Kellen sharply. She didn’t have to say what he knew perfectly well: if Shalkan hadn’t demanded a vow of celibacy and chastity from him in exchange for his aid in helping Kellen escape from Armethalieh, they might all be in very deep trouble right now.

“But the bad is balanced—and exceeded—by the good. By her gift at locating Demons and piercing their illusions, Vestakia can aid us to track the Endarkened, just as she found the Black Cairn for Kellen. Though her range is not great, nor can she see into the future, with her aid, should she choose to give it, we can know when something is just an accident and when it’s the work of the Endarkened. And if there are Demons around, however disguised, Vestakia will know.”

There was a long pause, while Andoreniel weighed Idalia’s words. “This is a great gift,” he said at last, getting to his feet. “It would make good hearing to know that you will use your power for the good of the Nine Cities, Vestakia.”

Idalia must have coached her back in the forest, because Vestakia seemed to have no difficulty understanding what Andoreniel meant.

“Yes,” Vestakia said, her voice very soft. “Yes, I will. It would be my honor to help you, however I can. How could—I mean, anyone who has any sort of gift that could be used to oppose such evil would do just the same.”

“Then be welcome in Sentarshadeen,” Andoreniel said gravely. “Jermayan and Abrinath will see you to your hearth.”

That seemed to settle it. No matter who had doubts about this—and there were probably plenty who did—there could be no arguing with the King. At least, not in public.

And in private—well, that didn’t matter. Kellen felt almost dizzy with relief, and was very glad he hadn’t drunk that second cup of wine.

Jermayan and Abrinath weren’t the only ones leaving with Vestakia. Quite a number of those present made preparations to leave as well, including a couple of grooms leading Valdien and Lily away, presumably to their stables. Kellen watched, fascinated, as they unfurled large parasols at the door of the pavilion— only, unlike the ones he’d seen in Armethalieh, these were apparently designed to keep off rain, not sun.

“You’ll be fine,” Kellen told Vestakia, under the cover of the preparations for the departure. “You’ll like it here. I’ll see you soon.”

“Do you promise?” Vestakia asked, sounding a little desperate.

“I promise,” Kellen said. “Ah, they’ll be giving you your own little house, by the way, one of the guest-houses. Just be sure to invite Jermayan to come inside when you get there. I don’t think he can come in otherwise.”

Vestakia smiled, a fleeting nervous smile. “I’ll remember,” she said.

And then Jermayan offered her his arm, and the two of them walked away.

Kellen glanced back at Idalia, to see her watching the two of them go. The expression on her face caught him by surprise.

Something’s changed here.

When they’d left, Idalia had been holding Jermayan at arm’s length. Kellen knew that she loved Jermayan as much as he loved her, but the fact that Elves bonded once, and for life, and that Idalia was inevitably going to die centuries before Jermayan did, had made her refuse to acknowledge that love, hoping that Jermayan would find someone else.

But now Idalia’s attitude seemed to have changed, if the expression on her face was any indication.

It isn’t any of my business, Kellen told himself firmly. He got to his feet, glancing from Shalkan to Idalia uncertainly. He wasn’t quite certain what to do now. And then, he started to sway, just a little, as exhaustion caught him by surprise.

“Oh, no, brother mine,” Idalia said firmly. “You’re not going anywhere until I see what’s under those bandages.”

Kellen stared around in alarm. Here? Now?

“I’d take you home first, but if it’s something I need to call in extra help for, I’d just have to bring you back through the city again. Might as well deal with it here,” Idalia said, leaning close and speaking softly, for Kellen’s ears alone.

Ashaniel gathered up most of the remaining courtiers—and all of the women, including Lairamo, who was still clutching Sandalon tightly—and prepared to leave. Andoreniel and Morusil stayed, along with several others whose names Kellen didn’t know.

“We look forward to celebrating your triumph before all Sentarshadeen once you are properly healed and rested, Kellen Tavadon,” Ashaniel said gravely.

“Thank you,” Kellen said simply. Somehow this didn’t seem like the time to complain that he hated parties.

Ashaniel turned and swept away, reaching out to take Sandalon’s hand in hers. The young Elven Prince was gazing back at Kellen forlornly over Lairamo’s shoulder.

“I’ll see you again soon,” Kellen called to the child, and saw Sandalon’s face light up with pleasure. Then the Queen and her court were gone, and two attendants were closing the pavilion awning behind them.

“Why don’t we get you out of that armor?” Idalia said pragmatically. “Better now than later.”

As deftly as if she’d done this a hundred times—and Kellen didn’t know she hadn’t—she unbelted his surcoat and lifted it off, then pulled out the locking-pins that held the armored collar in place and slipped it free, then lifted off the armored breast-and-backplate. Next came the multi-jointed armored sleeves, then the boots, then the leggings, then Kellen stood wearing nothing more than the thin quilted leather undersuit that went beneath the Elven armor.

It was damp from the rain, and had shiny worn scars on its surface where the armor had rubbed it.

Kellen felt peculiarly light and unfinished without his armor. In the short time since he’d first donned it, it had grown to be an extension of his self, as much as his sword was.

One of the attendants handed Idalia a thick belted robe—in the same shade of soft green as Kellen’s surcoat—and she helped him into it and tied the sash. Heavy soft over-the-knee boots of green-dyed sheepskin, woolly side in, completed the outfit. The Elves did nothing by halves.

“Comfy now?” Idalia asked.

“So far,” Kellen said cautiously.

Idalia snorted eloquently, and opened a large box that someone had placed on the table while Kellen hadn’t been paying attention. The box was large but not deep—though still too big for one person to carry comfortably—and made of a satiny golden wood, so beautifully crafted that Kellen couldn’t make out where the pieces were joined. When Idalia opened it, Kellen could see that it was lined in padded leather, and filled with small glass flasks. Idalia inspected the contents critically for a moment before choosing one.

The liquid inside was a lurid violet color. She picked up the goblet Kellen had used before and poured a generous portion of the violet liquid into it—it was thick and syrupy—before filling the cup the rest of the way with wine.

She lifted the cup to his lips. “Drink it all, as fast as you can,” she ordered.

“I suppose it tastes terrible,” Kellen said resignedly, having some experience with healing potions.

“Not this one,” Idalia said, sounding amused. “But it needs to start working before I can start working.”

Steadying the cup with his bandaged hands, Kellen complied. She’d been right; it didn’t taste that bad—particularly in comparison with other potions he’d had to drink—but the violet syrup gave the wine an odd sweetish undertaste that he didn’t actually care for, like eating candied flowers.

Idalia took the cup back and set it carefully on the table, then reached for his hand. Reflexively, Kellen drew back.

“I have to see what’s under there,” Idalia said gently. “It won’t hurt. Not once what I put in the wine takes effect anyway. Tell me what happened.”

“I burned them,” Kellen said simply. He knew he ought to tell her more, but somehow he really couldn’t bring himself to talk about what had happened at the top of the cairn. Not to Jermayan. Not to Shalkan. Not to anyone. “It was the keystone,” he finally added reluctantly.

“Do they hurt now?” Idalia asked, as impersonal as any physician.

“No. Not much, anyway. Jermayan had some kind of salve in his pack.”

“Night’s Daughter,” Shalkan supplied. “Mixed with allheal.”

“Well.” Idalia seemed surprised, and Kellen wondered what “Night’s Daughter” was. “Just as well he came prepared for every occasion.”

“And he gave me something horrible and brown to drink every night so I could sleep,” Kellen added. “It tasted like moldy hay.”

Idalia raised her eyebrow. Evidently she recognized what it was without Shalkan telling her. “It’s just as well you came back to us so soon, then.”

She knelt in front of him and unwrapped his hands slowly, alternating hands so that both would be exposed at the same time. Shalkan stood close, his cheek nearly touching Kellen’s. Kellen could tell that whatever was in the wine was starting to work. He felt sleepy, and it was hard to concentrate. As the outer layers of bandage came away, he could see the inner layers, sticky and glistening with greenish ointment.

And the more layers Idalia peeled away, the more Kellen could see that his hands looked wrong.

They just looked wrong.

Jermayan and Vestakia had never let him watch when they tended his dressings on the trail. He’d gone along with it then. He didn’t remember why just now, but he had. Maybe he’d been asleep when they’d done it. Maybe it was that brown stuff.

But he wasn’t asleep now.

“Don’t look,” Shalkan suggested, as Idalia lifted away the last layer of bandage, but Kellen couldn’t manage to take that good advice.

He looked. And wished he hadn’t.

His hands were warped and charred, caricatures of themselves. All the flesh was burned away from the palms, and Kellen thought he could see bone showing. Toward the edges of the burn, puffy moist colorless flesh hung in sloughing rags. His fingers were crooked into claws, the tendons pulled tight by the burns. He tried to flex his fingers and couldn’t. There was only pain—dull and distant, but there.

He made a strangled sound, and would have risen from his seat if not for Andoreniel’s hands on his shoulders, pressing him firmly down. Even through the effects of the draught Idalia had given him, Kellen could feel a rising tide of panic.

I’ll never hold a sword again!

Idalia made a hissing sound of dismay, and somehow that turned Kellen’s panic into anger.

“Well, what did you expect?” he said harshly, struggling with his feelings. He’d known he was burned. He’d known the burns were bad—very bad. But to see them… !

“I expected you to die,” Idalia said, all the grief she hadn’t shown before thick in her voice. “Oh, little brother, I’m so glad you came back alive!” She put her hand over his arm—above the burns—and squeezed gently, then sat back, looking over his shoulder.

“Kellen. Don’t look at your hands. Look at me,” Shalkan demanded. “Now.”

With a great effort, Kellen pulled his gaze away from his hands and met Shalkan’s gaze. The unicorn had beautiful eyes—deep green, and fringed by the longest silver lashes Kellen had ever seen.

“It will be all right,” the unicorn said softly. “You’ve seen Idalia heal worse injuries. Remember the unicorn colt? Just look at me and keep breathing. Let the potion do its work.”

Kellen took a deep breath. Anger was a tool of the Knight-Mage, but panic was his enemy. He wasn’t going to panic. He concentrated on Shalkan.

As if from a great distance, he heard Idalia’s voice:

“Will anyone here share in the price of this healing?”

“I will,” he heard Andoreniel say. “For what Kellen has done for my city, I stand in his debt forever.”

“And I,” Morusil added. “It is a small repayment for the refreshment Kellen has brought to my garden, and the saving of the forest.”

“And I—”

“And I—”

In a few moments, all the Elves who had remained behind had pledged themselves to share in the price of Kellen’s healing.

Chapter Two

A Healing and a Homecoming

THAT WILL MAKE things easier, Idalia thought absently. She reached out with her small knife and cut a few strands of Kellen’s hair, then a few of her own. Bless the boy, he didn’t even notice. He was staring into Shalkan’s eyes as if he’d found his one true love, breathing slowly and deeply, doing all he could to aid her in her spell. For a moment there, when he’d first seen his hands, she’d thought she was going to have to waste valuable energy putting him into Sleep, but he’d pulled out of his panic admirably.

Morusil had already gathered strands of hair from everyone else there. She added her own and Kellen’s hairs to the bundle, then pricked the ball of her thumb with her knife, and squeezed out a drop of her own blood, holding the now-bloody bundle of hairs under her hand so that the drop of blood fell on it and bound them all together.

Power flared up in the yellow pavilion, encircling them all and settling into a dome of protection. Once it had steadied, Idalia tossed the hair and the herbs necessary to her spell into the brazier that Morusil had also prepared, and whispered her spell.

Normally she would not need to do so much work to prepare a Healing. But Kellen was very badly injured. And Idalia was already laboring under the shadow of an unpaid Mageprice, incurred when she had cast the spell to bring the rains safely to Sentarshadeen. Though Andoreniel, Morusil, and the others would bear much of the cost of Kellen’s healing, there was always Magedebt to be paid: this was the law of the Wild Magic.

The weight of the Presence filled her, and she waited to hear the price. But instead, a voice seemed to speak within her: You have already paid your price in full.

No! Her denial was automatic. There was no magic without a cost—that was the first and most basic tenet of the Wild Magic. What price she had paid was for gifts she had already received, not for this.

But Kellen needed healing, and it would be foolishness to argue with the Presence. I accept, she said, and felt the Presence depart, just as if she had accepted a normal geas.

Green fire filled her hands, as thick and rich as wild honey. She tilted her hands and it spilled over, splashing onto Kellen’s hands and clinging, and where it touched, ruined flesh began to heal and re-knit as if it had never been burned. Once that damage had been repaired, the green fire spread—up Kellen’s arms, across his torso, down his legs—repairing all the lesser damage he’d sustained at the Barrier.

In moments the Healing was over. After a moment, Idalia dismissed the sphere of protection. She got stiffly to her feet.

At least she felt just as tired as if this had been a normal Healing, and judging from the faces of the Elves, they all felt the same.

Kellen met her eyes, his expression dazed and unfocused with exhaustion. He looked down at his hands, his eyes opening wide in delight and wonder at the sight of them whole and unmarred. He opened his hands wide, and then closed them into fists.

“They’re all right,” he said, his voice blurry with the aftereffects of the potion. “They’re all right!”

“Of course they are,” Idalia said, with an assurance she hadn’t felt until that moment, and with affection and love flowing over into her voice. “And now we’ll go home.”

“I’ll help,” Shalkan said. “I’m not sure Kellen remembers where it is. And even if he does, I’m not sure he could get there without deciding to lie down on the path for a nap. Which would severely inconvenience anyone else who needed to walk there.”

Kellen grinned tiredly, but did not contradict his friend.

Idalia brought Kellen’s cloak, then Kellen swung his leg over Shalkan’s bare back, and the three of them made their way to the small house Kellen shared with Idalia. Morusil accompanied them for part of the distance, until his path diverged from their own.

This time, Kellen didn’t even mind the rain.

No one seemed to take any particular notice of them. Elves were tactful in that way.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

“HERE we are.”

Kellen was nearly asleep by the time they reached their door. He blinked at it in surprise.

Everything looked different—familiar and strange at the same time. While he’d been gone, Sentarshadeen had taken on something of the aspect of a dreamworld in his mind; something too good to be true. But here it was again, as real as the rocks in the road. He took a deep breath and swung his leg over Shalkan’s back.

“I’ll see you later,” Shalkan said. “Get some sleep.” When the unicorn was sure Kellen was steady on his feet, he turned neatly on the path before the door and trotted delicately away.

Idalia opened the door, and Kellen hurried to get in out of the rain.

“Rain. It’s been raining since we started back. It’s raining now. Doesn’t it ever stop?” he asked, yawning as he walked inside. Everything was just as he’d left it, with the addition of a cloak-tree and drip-pan just inside the door. Kellen hung his sodden cloak on the highest peg, stretching and yawning again.

“Eventually,” Idalia promised. “Normally I’d suggest a hot bath before bed, but frankly, I don’t think you’ll stay awake through it—and I’d hate for you to drown after all my hard work. Why don’t you get out of those damp leathers and into your nice dry bed? You’ll need to sleep off that Healing. And then we can talk.”

Kellen nodded, heading toward his room. Bed! His own bed! And it would be dry, and warm, and he would not have to drag himself out of it at first light for sword practice, or another long day in the saddle…

With a mumbled thanks to Idalia, he slid back the door and walked inside.

The bed was turned down and waiting for him. Everything had been changed to autumn colors; there was a new bed-robe laid out, and—Kellen grinned to himself—towels as well. He sat down on the bench beneath the window and pulled off his clothes, toweling himself thoroughly dry afterward.

Even in the exhaustion that was the aftermath of the Healing spell, every time he used his hands he felt an enormous pang of relief. Just to pick something up, to close his hands, to look down and see, not numb bandage-covered lumps, but ten healthy responsive pink fingers was almost enough to rouse him to wakefulness again—almost. He’d lived with the fear for so long, that—because of the way they’d been burned, by magic—there’d be nothing Idalia would be able to do to Heal him.

But now that was all over. He was fine. Better than fine. Healed.

Time to move on to the next crisis, Kellen told himself, stumbling toward the bed.

He was asleep before he’d pulled the covers up over himself.

A few minutes after Kellen disappeared into his room, Idalia looked in. She found Kellen’s clothing strewn all over the floor, and Kellen asleep like a hibernating bear. She smiled faintly to herself and went to brew tea.

She was tired, but not tired enough to seek her own bed. There had been several present to share the cost of the Healing, and so the physical cost to her had been minimal. Normally, she would have also had a price to pay…

But not this time, apparently.

Idalia frowned. She’d never heard of such a thing before, but Wildmages didn’t run to libraries of books setting down the accumulated lore of Wildmages past. For one thing, the Wild Magic itself was fluid and ever-changing, and the way things had happened in the past wasn’t the way things would necessarily happen in the future.

As it seems I’ve just proven. Ah, well, if there are explanations to be had, I suppose I’ll find them in the Books of the Wild Magic.

Once the water was hot and her tea was steeping, she went to her room and got out her three Books.

The Book of Moon, The Book of Sun, and The Book of Stars were the three Books every Wildmage possessed. The Books were magical in themselves, and once they had found their Wildmage, they could not be separated from him or her by any means save the death of the Wildmage. Nor could they be destroyed. In them was everything a Wildmage needed to know in order to set their feet on the path of the Wild Magic, and a lifetime was not enough time to master their contents.

Idalia sat in the front room and read, drinking tea and listening to the rain. Though she found comfort in the familiar pages, she found very little in the way of enlightenment about what had happened when she’d healed Kellen. There was no gift—no magic—without payment. That was the way the world worked. All magic—whether the Wild Magic, the High Magick of Armethalieh, or the Shadow Magic of the Endarkened—had to be paid for, either in advance, with stored personal energy, or afterward, with a Mageprice—or sometimes both. Any attempt to subvert that Balance led to disastrous consequences: it was just such a temptation that the Endarkened had offered to the Wildmages during the Great War—a temptation to which some of them had succumbed, that of power without price.

So why had she not been asked for payment?

If the question bothers you enough, ask, she told herself, putting down The Book of Stars. She picked up her cup of now-cold tea, frowning down into its bowl.

Subconsciously, she realized she had been waiting for something.

No, not something.

Someone.

Jermayan.

Surely he ought to have been here by now?

“Fool,” Idalia muttered under her breath. She’d been sitting here like a maiden in a wondertale, expecting Jermayan to come to her just because she’d changed her mind—but after the thorough job she’d done of driving him away when she and Kellen had first come to Sentarshadeen, if there was to be a reconciliation, the first move in that dance would have to be hers.

She retreated to her room again, opened her desk, and penned a brief message.

There were times when it was distinctly advantageous to be a Wildmage, and this was one of them. She went out into her garden, and sent out a silent call.

She’d expected a bird to come to her call, but it was raining, and birds did not fly in the rain unless they must. To her surprise, a sleek white hound appeared, cocking his head alertly and regarding her curiously, tail wagging slowly.

He was no masterless animal—his smooth coat and the collar about his neck told her that much—but was apparently willing to take time from his own pursuits to do her a favor. And his price was easy enough to meet: a slice of meat-pie from her larder satisfied him. She tucked her note into his collar and secured it with a ribbon. And then, she sat down to wait.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

JERMAYAN arrived with admirable promptness. He was dressed in blue and silver, his waist-length hair elaborately braided with long silver cords that had a tiny teardrop of midnight-blue lapis at the end of each. They matched the larger drops of lapis that hung from each ear, his cloak-brooches, his rings, and the lustrous bloom of the deep-piled silk-velvet breeches tucked into butter-soft high-heeled boots that swept extravagantly all the way to mid-thigh.

His tunic was a pale grey heavy silk brocade oversewn with thousands of beads of crystal and moonstone in a seemingly-random pattern meant to mimic a shower of raindrops. The latest fashion among the Elves was clothing that looked as if it was wet when it wasn’t. Idalia was impressed—the man had barely been here half a day and was already leading the style.

“Be welcome in my home and at my hearth,” she said, meaning the words as she had never meant them before.

Jermayan shook out his cloak—wet with real raindrops—and hung it on the cloak-tree, and set his rainshade—blue and silver, of course—beside it.

“Well met, Idalia. It is good to be welcome in the home of friends.”

“Kellen is asleep,” Idalia said, decoding the unspoken question with the ease of long practice. “The Healing went well, and he is restored to complete health; a good, long sleep and a few decent meals will complete the Healing, leaving him as hale as when he left here.”

“That makes good hearing,” Jermayan said. “Then he will be ready to resume his lessons soon. There is much yet for him to learn in the ways of a Knight-Mage.”

And so little time for any of us!

“I would offer you tea,” Idalia said in a faintly-strangled voice, turning toward the stove that stood tucked neatly into one corner of the room. “And it would be interesting to know how Vestakia finds Sentarshadeen as well.”

But Jermayan did not answer, and the silence stretched as Idalia set the kettle on the stove to heat, and rinsed and filled the Elvenware teapot with several measures of Autumn Rain tea.

Why didn’t he say anything? If he were angry with her for any reason, he would not have come, so that could not be the reason. Could something have happened to Vestakia?

Darkness damn all notions of Elven propriety! If he didn’t explain himself soon she was going to break down and ask him.

Idalia turned around—why was it so hard to face him, now of all times?— and found that Jermayan had not moved away from his position near the door. He was standing, watching her with that utter Elven stillness, his face expressionless. She forced herself to meet his eyes.

“Idalia, you once played our courtly games far better than this. Now you are as awkward in our ways as Kellen is,” Jermayan said, very gently. “You have changed your mind. Perhaps you would show kindness to one who is your brother’s friend and who has always… meant you well.”

She forced herself to take one step away from the table, then another, noting with a distant measuring part of herself that her legs trembled. Why was this so hard? There was no place in a Wildmage’s life for dishonesty and false pride. She had abandoned those things—she thought she had—years before.

And because that was true, she knew the reason now. She’d taken risks that mattered before. She’d hazarded her life and her safety. But not her heart. Before, she’d only offered up her life, or a Wildmage’s honor… not something that, if everything went wrong, would leave her whole in body, able to mourn and suffer, without even the chill consolation that she’d done it all in the name of Service.

Because she was doing this for herself.

“Idalia?” Jermayan asked. A question. She felt her face quirk in an uncertain smile. She held out her hand.

His fingers closed over hers. Warm, when his touch had always been so cool before.

“Because—when you were gone—I realized that we’re all going to die.”

Jermayan’s fingers tightened over hers.

“No, it isn’t magic, not a vision, don’t worry. Just common sense. You’re an Elven Knight—”

She felt him relax. Looking up, Idalia could see that he smiled. She let him draw her closer.

“My heart, I have been an Elven Knight since before your grandparents met,” Jermayan said.

“And I am a Wildmage,” Idalia agreed. “And never in either of our lifetimes has Shadow Mountain begun moving so actively against our peoples. You know, and I know, we’re going to war. Kellen destroyed the Barrier. Shadow Mountain won’t stop because of that; if anything, it will speed their plans. Of all of the creatures of Light that the Shadow hates the most, the Wildmages and Elven Knights are at the top of the list of those first to be destroyed.”

“Yes,” Jermayan said, meeting her gaze steadily, “I fear that you are correct. And so you think I will die before you, and for this reason you are at last willing to hear the counsel of my heart.”

No, Idalia thought, closing her eyes for a moment. But I think you will not survive me long enough to grieve overmuch.

“I think I have been foolish to throw away the chance for joy,” Idalia said softly. “And I thank the Gods that I have been given a second chance.”

She went into his arms willingly, as she had not since the day she had first realized he loved her, and such felt a sense of peace and joy well up as she had never experienced outside of the Wild Magic.

“Then let it be so, Idalia,” Jermayan said. “And if I do not share your optimism at the length of my life, it is no matter—I shall surrender upon any terms you set. Now be merciful in your victory, and grant one concession more: name the day upon which we may be wed.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

IDALIA only barely managed to keep from recoiling in horror from Jermayan’s words. Taking Jermayan as her lover was one thing. But marriage… ?

Elves had given up their share in the greater Magics long ago in exchange for peace and long lives. But they had had many, many years in which to learn to use the small magics they yet possessed in the most effective way possible, and some of them were very potent. Elves mated for life. None of the Elvenkind would offer marriage to someone that they did not recognize a soul-bond with, and when they wed, one of the purposes of the ceremony was to strengthen that soul-bond with those small magics, binding the partners together body, mind, heart, and soul.

If she married him—perhaps if she did so much as accept his betrothal pendant—they would be linked. It was not impossible that Jermayan would have a certain amount of access to her thoughts—including, possibly, knowledge of the price she had accepted to bring the weather down safely to Sentarshadeen.

And that was something she didn’t dare allow.

“Not yet,” Idalia said firmly. “A proper wedding takes time to plan, Jermayan!” she added, making her voice light. “You are no lowly herb-tender, to expect to leap a broom with your chosen goose-girl and call it done! You have an obligation to Sentarshadeen and to your liege to create an occasion that all may treasure in memory!”

This time she blessed Elven custom for its intricacies. Jermayan would have to ask permission of the King and Queen, who would in turn have to debate this—for Idalia was human, and while such marriages were not unknown, they were rare. He would have to arrange for the appropriate sort of wedding, and it would have to be a very public occasion. And by the time even half of that was accomplished—

Sentarshadeen might well be a city under siege, and such considerations as weddings would be forgotten.

“Time—and perhaps fair weather and dry,” Jermayan teased. “And I do not doubt that we will find other things to beguile us during the moonturns of waiting…”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

HE’D thought he’d heard voices.

Kellen awoke, disoriented by the unfamiliar sensation of sleeping in a warm dry bed. For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was, or how he’d gotten here, but then the memories slipped into place. Sentarshadeen. Home. He felt better than he had in sennights. No bruises, no torn half-healed muscles. And his hands—his hands. He stretched, luxuriating in the feeling that there was nothing whatsoever wrong.

He’d definitely heard voices.

And he was hungry. Hungry enough to eat—if not Valdien, then something of approximately the same size as Jermayan’s warhorse, and he wouldn’t really care how thoroughly it was cooked, either. He knew it was the aftereffect of the healing Idalia had performed on him, but that didn’t make him any less hungry. He only hoped the larder was well stocked.

He belted on the heavy overtunic he’d worn home, too hungry to stop and look for the bedrobe he remembered seeing, and slid back the door into the common room.

Jermayan and Idalia were there.

Both of them.

Together.

And from the look of things, they had definitely settled their differences.

Kellen retreated quickly, feeling his cheeks flush, and slid the door shut a shade too forcefully, leaning against it. His hunger was momentarily forgotten.

He felt himself growing hot with embarrassment. He stared around the room, and as he did, he saw a bowl of fruit and a carafe on the bedside table. He walked over to it, discovering that there was not only fruit, but a plate of cheese pastries covered by a cloth. The carafe contained cider.

See? Kellen told himself, sitting down on the edge of the bed and biting into a pastry. There’s food in here. You don’t need to go out there.

In fact, he thought he might not ever go out there again…

There was a faint rattle as the door slid open again.

“You can come out now,” Idalia said, stifled laughter in her voice. “It’s safe. I promise. And we wouldn’t want you to starve to death in here.”

Kellen got to his feet, setting the remaining half of the second pastry back on the plate and brushing crumbs from the front of his robe. He thought of all the things he could possibly say, and decided not to say any of them. They were all simply too horribly embarrassing, especially with Idalia looking at him that way and obviously trying so hard not to laugh.

“I wish both of you all happiness,” Kellen said instead. He was surprised— both to find that he meant it, and that it was exactly the right thing to say.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THE following evening a formal banquet was held to officially welcome Kellen and Jermayan home to Sentarshadeen.

Kellen spent the day preceding it indoors. He had a choice, or so Idalia told him that morning. He could stay inside. By Elven standards of etiquette, that would mean he was not officially “here,” and no one would bother him.

Or he could go out. But once he crossed his doorstep, he’d be fair game, and though the Elves were notoriously—and unfailingly—polite, they also lived to gossip, and he would probably be the center of more attention than he liked.

“What about Vestakia?” Kellen asked. He’d just as soon avoid the attention, but he didn’t want to abandon Vestakia on her first day in Sentarshadeen.

“Vestakia,” Idalia had answered with a wicked smirk, “will be spending the morning—the entire morning, and possibly most of the afternoon—receiving a new wardrobe from Tengitir, who announced that she has waited her entire life for such a challenge as Vestakia represents. You know, I do believe that if the Prince of Shadow Mountain were to appear before her, Tengitir would demand that he take off his clothes and step into the light so that she could best determine what colors and fabrics suited his skin,” Idalia added bemusedly.

Kellen laughed. Having been dressed by the Elven seamstress himself—Tengitir’s specialty was in designing clothing for the non-Elven—he thought that was almost possible.

“Afterward—if there’s time before the banquet—Jermayan and I will take her around Sentarshadeen a little. To show her the city—and to show her to the city as well, of course. The sooner everyone sees that there is nothing to fear from her, the better,” Idalia added.

“And if there is anything wrong in the city, she’ll find it,” Kellen said.

“Yes,” Idalia said. “I’d thought of that, as well.”

So with one thing and another, Kellen spent the day at home, mostly by himself. Idalia seemed to have a great many errands to run, going in and out all day, returning more often than not with mysterious parcels which she wouldn’t let him unwrap.

“Time enough for that later, little brother,” was all she would say. She seemed cheerful enough, and Kellen was glad of that. When they’d first arrived in Sentarshadeen, she’d seemed so… grave. He preferred this Idalia better. It made it easier to pretend that in destroying the Barrier they’d solved all their problems, though Kellen knew they hadn’t. They’d only bought themselves and the Elves some time—though how much time, and what form the next attack would take, was something he doubted even Idalia could guess.

To distract himself from the unavoidable banquet—though the son of the Arch-Mage of Armethalieh had a certain amount of experience with formal banquets, this would be the first such event Kellen had attended among the Elves—Kellen spent the day cleaning and polishing his sword and armor, having found that his gear had been delivered to the house the previous day. Not that it really needed doing—someone had obviously been at it before him—but it gave his hands something to do, and settled his mind.

When he’d finished that, he got out his Books, and turned to The Book of Stars.

The Book of Stars was the most esoteric and puzzling of the three books. The Book of Moon was the simplest, containing basic cantrips and the building blocks of spells. A budding Wildmage could begin working Wildmagery within minutes of opening The Book of Moon.

The Book of Sun contained some information about spells as well, but was more occupied with why spells should be cast than how, and often with whether they should be cast at all, since the Wild Magic was a magic of Balance, and often things tended to slip back into balance without the Wildmage’s help.

The Book of Stars seemed to be about the underlying principles of the Wild Magic. Idalia had once told Kellen that studying it helped the Wildmage become a better Wildmage, although Kellen had never been able to see how, as nothing he’d read in it had ever really made a lot of sense to him. She’d said he should study it anyway, so Kellen had.

It seemed to make a lot more sense now that Kellen knew he was a Knight-Mage instead of a regular Wildmage.

The Book of Stars said that “The Knight-Mage is the active agent of the principle of the Wild Magic, the Wildmage who chooses to become a warrior or who is born with the instinct for the Way of the Sword, who acts in battle without mindful thought and thus brings primary causative forces into manifestation by direct action.”

When they had discovered that this was what Kellen was, Jermayan had told him that a Wildmage and a Knight-Mage’s gifts lay in opposite directions; that while a Wildmage reached out to all the world, a Knight-Mage’s gifts turned inward, so that he could not be turned away from his course once he had chosen it. Because of that, Kellen’s abilities in Wildmagery would never be as strong as Idalia’s, but Jermayan also said that a Knight-Mage could withstand forces that would destroy a regular Wildmage, for the Knight-Mage’s true power lay in endurance and the alliance of his knightly skills with his Wildmagery.

It all sounded very fine, but kind of unsettling, and while Kellen had a lot more confidence in his Wildmage skills—especially now that he wasn’t measuring them against Idalia’s—he knew he still had a lot to learn about this knight business. And he’d better learn fast.

Fortunately, he had Jermayan to teach him.

He wasn’t surprised to find that The Book of Stars seemed to make a lot more sense now that he knew what he really was. For the first time, the words in the tiny handwritten book seemed to be speaking directly to him, as if the long-gone Wildmage who had copied it out from his or her own Books—why? Kellen still sometimes wondered, and as part of what Mageprice?—were here, and speaking directly to him.

Only when you cease to try, will you achieve. Only when you cease to seek, will you find. Only when you are emptied, will you be filled.

If that wasn’t exactly what finding the Way of the Knight-Mage was like, he’d eat his boots. It gave him a kind of comfort, to know that whatever might come to pass, it was somehow within the sphere of the Wild Magic.

And for the first time, he wondered if all copies of the three Books were the same. Oh, probably The Book of Moon was, and maybe The Book of Sun—but what about The Book of Stars? Because what was in his Book certainly wouldn’t apply to Idalia, would it? Was every copy of The Book of Stars suited only to the Wildmage who was supposed to read it?

“Kellen? Come back to the world, little brother.”

Kellen startled at the sound of Idalia’s voice, disturbing Greymalkin, who had insinuated herself into his lap as he read. The cat yawned and stretched, stalking slowly from his lap.

Kellen blinked up at his sister, surprised to see how far the light had failed. He’d been sure he was still reading, but now he saw that it was too dark to make out the words on the page.

“Which Book?” she asked.

Kellen closed the worn leather volume and brandished it in explanation. The small gold star glinted faintly on the spine. Idalia raised an eyebrow and smiled, saying nothing.

“Time to have a bath and get dressed. It’s going to take you a while to climb into all your finery,” she said teasingly.

Kellen sighed, getting reluctantly to his feet. His experiences with formal dress when he had lived in his father’s house had not been pleasant ones, and he doubted he’d show to advantage in a roomful of costume-obsessed Elves. One of the oldest Histories in Armethalieh said that “the Elves have elevated mere living into a form of Art,” and that included clothing, of course. Even if his own outfit for tonight had been designed to take into account the shortcomings of clumsy short-lived humans—and since Tengitir had certainly made it, it undoubtedly had—among the Elves, he’d look like a turnip in a rose garden.

Just as out of place as he had back in Armethalieh.

“Bath,” Idalia said firmly, taking him by the shoulders and turning him in that direction. “I’ll lay out your clothes while you do that. And hurry up, because I still have to wash and change myself.”

Kellen headed for the bathroom—he could get his robe while the tub filled. He felt a little better, knowing that Idalia was going to be there, and just as overdressed as he was. He could hardly imagine what she’d look like in high Elven finery.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

AND by dusk, he knew.

Idalia was wearing a dress—Kellen’s first reaction was to laugh, but he didn’t; she would have slain him on the spot—whose main color was the same violet as her eyes.

On second look, there was no reason to laugh. He’d never seen Idalia in a dress before. In fact, after what little she’d told him about her childhood, he’d thought she wouldn’t be caught dead in one, but somehow, it didn’t look… unsuitable. There was nothing ornate or frivolous about it, just clean simple practical lines, as businesslike as a good sword.

But it wasn’t plain, any more than an Elvenware bowl was plain. The shimmering violet silk glowed like glass, as if it were somehow lit from within, and was accented by insets of dark bark-brown velvet almost the color of her hair, velvet that somehow had a furtive, iridescent glimmer of the same violet rippling along the surface of it wherever the light struck it. There were insets along the collar, at the shoulders, and inside the full outer sleeves. She looked—elegant. He hadn’t known she could look elegant.

“I’ll be tripping over my skirts all night,” Idalia muttered, stalking across the room to glare into a mirror, but Kellen knew she wouldn’t. They only seemed to touch the floor, but that was a clever illusion. The hem was actually uneven; it didn’t touch the floor at all, and was several inches shorter in front than in back.

“You’ll be fine,” Kellen said soothingly. “And you look”—he sought for a word that would convey what he thought—“dignified. Amazing, actually.”

“So do you,” Idalia said. She slid a pair of ebony and Elvensilver combs into her hair—her only jewelry—and turned to regard Kellen critically.

He’d been relieved to find that he hadn’t needed help dressing after all. His costume (he really couldn’t think of it any other way) was not very much more elaborate than Idalia’s—and fortunately, the sheer, body-hugging styles that the Elves favored for themselves were nowhere in evidence in Kellen’s own garb.

There were a few notes of the same sea-green that was the accent color for his armor—he guessed he’d better get used to the idea that the Elves thought of it as his official color now—in the very plain heavy silk trousers and long-sleeved tunic that were the bottom layer of his outfit. But over those went a long sleeveless vest that fell to mid-thigh, closed all the way to its high neck by a double row of tiny silver buttons that had taken him ages to do up. It was made of a sheered velvet in a leaf-pattern—parts were sheer, and parts were thick velvet, and Kellen couldn’t quite decide what the color was. Silver? Gold? Brown? All of them?

Eventually he gave up. It looked okay over the green, anyway, making the silk undertunic (where it showed through) shimmer in a silvery—definitely silvery—way.

Over that came a long full-sleeved robe that fell to mid-calf, in a green so dark it was almost black. It was a kind of cloth he’d never seen before, soft like wool, and smooth, but faintly iridescent. It was lined in dull gold satin, and belted with a wide—and very long—sash in a slightly brighter shade of green than the overrobe. That had nearly been his undoing, until Idalia had taken pity on him and showed him how to wrap and tie the sash properly.

Low boots, of a reassuringly normal-looking pale gold calfskin, completed his outfit.

“I don’t look bad,” Kellen agreed. And I don’t feel silly, he realized with relief. Nobody was asking him to wear earrings, braid jewels into his hair, paint his face, or do any of the other things the Elves did when they got themselves done up for some festive occasion. Now, just as long as nobody asked him to make a speech…

“Except for your hair,” Idalia agreed. “Come over here.”

A few minutes with a comb, and Idalia had pulled Kellen’s mop of light-brown curls back into a short twisted braid at the nape of his neck. It felt reassuringly normal—it was the way he wore his hair under his helmet, after all.

“There. Presentable.” She craned around and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “You’ll definitely do. I’ll just get our raincapes and rainshades, and we can be off. Don’t worry—they’re bespelled to keep the rain off—and I actually think it’s slackening a bit this evening. Not stopping, of course, which is just as well,” Idalia said.

“Where are we going?” Kellen asked, thinking to ask for the first time.

“The gardens at the House of Leaf and Star. There’s no other place large enough to accommodate the guest list—and the unicorns will want to be able to listen—from a distance, of course.”

“Outside? In the rain?”

Idalia snickered at Kellen’s expression.

“Under canvas—or silk, actually. Relax. Everything that should be dry, will be dry. You look like you’re being sent to an execution, not to a banquet.”

All things considered, Kellen would rather have gone to an execution.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THE formal gardens of the House of Leaf and Star were subtly beautiful, like all the creations of the Elves: the natural world raised to an impossible pitch of perfection.

He’d never seen the gardens, but then, he hadn’t been in Sentarshadeen long, and had gotten most of his tour of it courtesy of Sandalon, who’d shown him the things that Sandalon thought would interest a human stranger… which had not, obviously, included his parents’ gardens.

Kellen looked down, realizing that at some point, without noticing, he and Idalia had gone from the streets of Sentarshadeen to a wide-slatted wooden path laid across the meadow to a path of white gravel.

This must be the garden, then.

Tonight it was filled with more lanterns than Kellen would once have been willing to bet were in the entire city of Sentarshadeen. Before the rains came, it had been necessary to keep the lights of evening from starting any accidental fires in a city made tinder-dry by drought. Now it was only necessary to keep the flames from being drowned by the rain. But the Elves—who accomplished far more through clever engineering than humans had ever done through magic— made it look effortless.

Some of the lanterns shone through tall gauzy windbreaks set up to blunt the force of the blustering, rain-heavy winds, turning them into tall, softly-gleaming rectangles of color. Though they seemed as insubstantial as kites, Kellen doubted they’d fall if the wind blew ten times as hard, though they quivered when the wind struck them. Kellen suspected they were meant to.

Inside the curving walls of windbreaks, the air was nearly still, and the flames inside the artfully-scattered lanterns—some suspended on tall posts, some nearer the ground—burned steadily. But the towering windbreaks were walls only, not roofs, and Kellen was still glad to have his rainshade and cloak for protection. He’d gotten his fill of being wet on his return from the Barrier.

But the other purpose for the windbreaks, besides sheltering the lanterns, was obviously to protect the dining pavilions.

Unlike the place in which he, Jermayan, and Vestakia had first been received—if not entirely welcomed—these were little more than canopies suspended on poles. Even in the rain, the entire garden was lit as brightly as the common room of Kellen’s house, and very little of it was really open to the falling rain. Their cloaks were taken from them as they arrived at the edge of the garden, leaving them their light and elegant rainshades. The garden was already filled with Elves, their rainshades making them look like fabulous flowers.

“Like it?” Idalia said, gesturing around.

“Everyone’s already here,” Kellen said uneasily. “Are we late?”

“No. The honored guests arrive last. And of course, having spent all day putting this together, they certainly expect you to take some time to admire it before the banquet begins. Let’s look around.”

Idalia put her free hand on his arm and led Kellen forward. He didn’t see much of the garden as it normally was—but he did see a lot of dining pavilions, and oiled-paper lanterns, and people he knew. All of Sentarshadeen was here tonight indeed, and he and Idalia stopped several times to speak politely to people that Kellen knew from the time he’d spent on the work crews watering the forest, and to several of Idalia’s friends as well.

All the time his sense of dread grew. Everything seemed so quiet, so… formal. He wouldn’t be able to get through this evening without making some terrible error. He knew it.

“We’ll be sitting over there, under that green awning,” Idalia said, when their slow meander finally brought them within range of the canopies.

In the back of his mind, Kellen had been wondering where everyone was going to sit. Under the tents, obviously, but surely there weren’t enough tables and chairs—not to mention plates and cups—in the city to host a banquet for its entire populace? Unless the Elves had built them all—but in two days? He sort of thought that would take greater magic than they claimed to possess.

He glanced around.

He was surprised to see that what was under the awnings wasn’t large, long banquet tables—such as he would have seen in Armethalieh—but instead an assortment of tables in various shapes, sizes, and woods. All harmonious, of course, in the Elven fashion, but certainly not giving the impression they’d all been built for the occasion. In fact…

He was sure he recognized some of the furnishings. Surely that table under the rose-colored canopy was from the House of Leaf and Star? Yes, he was sure of it. He’d eaten dinner at it his first night in Sentarshadeen, alone with Ashaniel, Lairamo, and Sandalon.

Suddenly Kellen realized why the tables and chairs—and the tableware as well—were a harmonious assortment instead of an harmonious whole. It might be held in the gardens of the House of Leaf and Star, but the tables and chairs were from nearly every home in Sentarshadeen.

Andoreniel and Ashaniel weren’t giving this banquet. The entire city was.

Kellen felt himself relax at last. He realized he’d been thinking of tonight in Armethaliehan terms—of this banquet as an event meant to crush spectators and participants with its magnificence and to inspire them with thoughts of their own unworthiness to attend it. But if Elves thought that way, the House of Leaf and Star would be a cold and forbidding palace, terrible in its majesty.

No.

When the Elves said that this was a welcoming banquet, that was exactly what it was. Their ways might be strange, and their code of etiquette difficult for a human to understand or to follow, but that was what they meant. For all the garden’s daunting and ethereal beauty, tonight had far more in common with the party the Centaurs and farmers had held back in the Wildwood to bid him and Idalia farewell than it did with anything that might ever occur in the Golden City!

“The Elves are like no other people in the world,” Idalia said quietly, watch-ing his face. “You read the Histories, back in the City? Where they talk about the Other Races? Do you remember what they say about the Elves?”

“That they make living into Art?” Kellen asked.

“Oh, there’s that,” Idalia said, shrugging. “But it also says they lie.”

Kellen turned to face her, outraged.

“I was surprised,” Idalia said, “so I went to an older, unexpurgated version— the one in the locked case in Father’s library. There, it says that Elves never lie— and never tell the truth.”

“Not much better,” Kellen muttered, but then he thought about it. “Never lied”—he couldn’t remember Jermayan, or any of the other Elves he’d met ever lying to him. But told him the truth? The whole truth, the way he thought he wanted it, as fast as he wanted it?

He had to admit he hadn’t gotten that, either. And maybe still didn’t have it, even from Jermayan, who was his friend and teacher.

“Maybe fairer,” Kellen said grudgingly. Not much though.

“Elves are different from humans,” Idalia said. “Very different. They live much longer, they have a different way of looking at the world than humans do. I am not saying you shouldn’t trust them—you’d say I’d gone crazy, and you’d be right. But don’t expect them to think like humans, because they just won’t.” She stared off into nothing for a moment. “When you live as long as they do, you take your time about everything, and you wait for everything to come in its proper time. So, for instance, an Elf will never tell you the whole truth all at once; he’ll wait for the right time to tell you bits of it, until, in the end, you’ve come to see the shape of it for yourself. Which is the point, for them—that you should come to see and understand a truth for yourself, and not have to be told what it is. Now, give that a lot of thought, and you’ll begin to see how they live their entire lives.”

“Why didn’t you tell me all this when we first came here?” Kellen asked curiously. Surely all this good advice would have been a lot more useful then?

Idalia smiled crookedly. “You wouldn’t have listened. We weren’t going to a formal banquet then. And you weren’t meeting the entire city population on more-or-less equal terms. Oh, there’s Jermayan and Vestakia.”

She pointed.

Kellen turned, spotting Jermayan and Vestakia coming up behind them.

Jermayan was dressed pretty much as Kellen was—the long belted robe seemed to be a standard sort of evening fashion—though Jermayan’s robe was practically transparent, and so were both undertunics. Kellen felt his face get a little flushed. Not that Jermayan didn’t have the body for such an audacious outfit, but still!

But Vestakia… !

There was no possible way to conceal the fact that she looked like a Demon, so Tengitir had obviously decided to make a virtue of what could not be ignored.

Her gown left her neck and shoulders bare, and her deep rose skin sparkled as if it had been dusted with gold. It probably had been, in fact, because there had been subtle patterns painted on her forehead in gold, in imitation of some of the filigree diadems worn by some of the Elven ladies. Her eyes had been accentuated with lines of black and gold on the lids, making them look bigger and somehow more innocent.

A wide band of gold and red embroidery held her cherry-black hair away from her pointed ears, exposing both them and her tiny golden horns, and a band of the same material decorated the neckline—if you could call it a neckline—of her long-sleeved dress, holding in the folds of shimmering gold brocade that were gathered into a tightly-pleated waist before sweeping out into a full skirt that was gathered up at the sides to reveal an underskirt the exact shade of her skin.

“You look amazing,” Kellen said.

Vestakia smiled shyly, ducking her head.

“Come on,” Idalia said, looking at him oddly. “I’ll escort Vestakia around. You and Jermayan… mingle.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

“IS she—I mean, it would please me to know that Vestakia is going to be all right,” Kellen said, catching himself just in time. He barely avoided hitting Jermayan with his rainshade, but Jermayan handled his own with as much grace as if it were a sword.

“Idalia will see to her comfort,” Jermayan said. “And certainly no harm nor insult has come to her yet.”

“Good,” Kellen said. About then, his brain caught up with the rest of him and he realized why Idalia and Jermayan had gotten him away from Vestakia so quickly.

He’d been so stunned at the sight of her in that dress that he’d just stared, but now, thinking back…

No. No thinking. Not about that, or anything like that. Not for a year.

He’d sworn a vow of chastity and celibacy to Shalkan in exchange for the unicorn’s help in getting away from Armethalieh and the Outlaw Hunt. And it didn’t matter whether or not Shalkan was his friend. If Kellen broke that vow, Shalkan would have no choice but to exact the penalty for breaking it.

And Kellen didn’t want to break his vow.

But Vestakia—

No.

Kellen tipped back his rainshade—Jermayan ducked gracefully out of the way—and took a deep breath of the cool moist air. It had been easier when he’d been sick and drugged. A lot easier.

“I need a great favor from you. You have to explain for me, Jermayan,” Kellen said, though it was the last thing in the world he wanted to say. “You have to let her know why I can’t—spend as much time with her as I want to. I don’t want her to think I’m avoiding her.”

Although that was exactly what he was going to be doing, at least for a while, at least until he could get all this straightened out in his own mind. Maybe Shalkan would have some good advice for him—not that he’d be seeing Shalkan here tonight, of course. Unicorns were notoriously uninterested in the company of the non-chaste, and even Shalkan’s tolerance had limits.

“I will,” Jermayan promised. “And remember—she is not unfamiliar with the obligations a Wildmage must undertake. As for you, you will be far too busy to worry about the matter. After the Council meeting tomorrow morning, come to the House of Sword and Shield, where we will continue your training—”

“That will be—” Wait a minute. Council meeting? There’s a Council meeting? And I’m supposed to go? Without success, Kellen attempted to come up with a polite way to indicate he wanted to know more about that. “It would be most gratifying to hit you now, Jermayan,” he finally said.

The Elven Knight smiled. “You may attempt the exercise tomorrow afternoon. In the morning I believe you will be accompanying Idalia, to advise Andoreniel and Ashaniel upon the best way to deal with… the problem.”

The Elves almost never spoke the words “Shadow Mountain” or “Demon” aloud, as if to say them might be to summon the Endarkened—and from the very little Kellen knew of Shadow Magic, that might even be true.

So he was going to the Council meeting… and Jermayan was not.

“Idalia goes because she’s a Wildmage… and I think she’s the only Wildmage anywhere around near here. And I guess I go because I’m a Knight-Mage,” Kellen finally said.

“Tomorrow, perhaps we may know if you are correct,” Jermayan said. “But these are grim subjects for a night of celebration! Come, and I will bring you to that which will lift your spirits.”

They passed among the canopies and among the lanterns. Jermayan moved purposefully, but not so swiftly that Kellen did not have opportunities to appreciate the beauty that surrounded him. There was probably no “best time” to see the garden; like every work of the Elves, it was undoubtedly designed to present a different aspect at every hour and season, and even at night and in the rain, it caught and held Kellen’s attention.

But the garden was not what Jermayan had brought him to see.

In a corner of the garden—not quiet, precisely, because there was a rowdy game of chase-and-catch going on, but secluded—there seemed to be a party-within-a-party going on.

“Children,” Kellen said quietly, stopping at the edge of the smaller garden.

“The children of Sentarshadeen,” Jermayan agreed.

They were not alone, of course. There were other Elves there—servants (assuming the Elves had servants), companions, older brothers and sisters, perhaps even their parents. Kellen recognized Sandalon, and a moment later the young Prince spotted him and came running over.

“Kellen!” he shouted happily.

The game stopped instantly—Kellen had the sense that the others had been entertaining Sandalon—and everyone looked at him.

Oh, this is awkward. If dealing with adult Elves could be embarrassing, the potential problems in dealing with Elven children—far more direct than their elders—could be mind-boggling.

“Uh… hi,” Kellen said.

“We’ve been waiting for you! Everybody wants to meet you! This is Alkandoran,” Sandalon said, pulling Kellen firmly into the midst of the group. “He’s nearly as old as you are, Kellen!”

Kellen found himself face-to-face with a boy who—and he saw no reason to assume Sandalon was mistaken—must be about his own age. Alkandoran was dressed in a tunic and leggings and sleeveless vest, but without the long robe and belt of his elders. He was willowy and slender, androgynously pretty, and almost painfully determined not to gawk at the human stranger.

“I See you, Alkandoran,” Kellen said, bowing slightly. He was pretty sure he knew just how Alkandoran felt.

“I See you, Kellen Knight-Mage,” Alkandoran said, bowing in return.

“And this is Tredianala,” Sandalon continued.

Tredianala didn’t just look uncomfortable. She looked terrified, as only the very shy could be in the presence of strangers. She was much younger than Alkandoran—maybe ten? Twelve?—and dressed in a knee-length tunic over full trousers. Kellen was reminded of some of the shyest Otherfolk, the ones you might share a forest with for years, but never see.

“I See you, Tredianala,” Kellen said softly, carefully not looking directly at her. “It pleases me to meet a friend of my friend.”

“I See you, Kellen Knight-Mage,” another girl boldly said, without waiting for Sandalon to make the introduction.

“I See you—”

“Merisashendiel,” Sandalon supplied cheerfully. Kellen turned toward the child, feeling as much as seeing Tredianala make her escape back behind the adults.

Merisashendiel looked enough like Tredianala to be her twin sister—they were dressed in similar costumes—but there all resemblance ended. Merisashendiel regarded him with frank interest, as if she was bursting with questions that she intended to ask then and there.

But she was enough older than Sandalon to know better than to do that, at least in front of strangers.

“I See you, Merisashendiel,” Kellen said, bowing very low. She giggled, regarding him with speculative approval, then swept into a full low curtsy, watching him all the time.

Kellen grinned. That one was going to provide her parents with more than a few sleepless nights in a few years, at least if Elven ways were anything like human ones.

The byplay was entirely lost on Sandalon, of course. And would be for some years yet.

“And here is Vendalton.”

When Kellen had first arrived in Sentarshadeen, he’d found Sandalon playing alone along the dry riverbed. And Ashaniel had said that Sandalon was often lonely. Kellen had assumed, at the time, that that was because Sandalon was the only child in Sentarshadeen, but it made just as much sense if these were all the children in Sentarshadeen. He wasn’t all that good at judging the ages of Elven children, but Vendalton seemed to be easily twice Sandalon’s age. A five-year difference in age might not matter later, but it was a huge gap now.

“I See you, Vendalton,” Kellen said.

“I See you, Kellen Knight-Mage,” Vendalton said. “Sandalon said that you slew a… something evil.”

“With the help of my friends, I destroyed the Barrier that was keeping the rain from falling on Sentarshadeen,” Kellen said, choosing his words with care. “Everyone helped, and even so, it was very hard. It also could not have been done without the magic of my sister, in which all of Sentarshadeen participated. So you see, it was all of us together, as a whole, and not any one individual that broke the bonds of evil. I was only the channel through which all of our effort flowed.”

Sandalon and Vendalton stared hard at each other, and Kellen wondered what long-running argument he’d just resolved—or made worse.

Jermayan cleared his throat significantly, regarding Sandalon.

“But she can’t talk!” Sandalon protested.

“Nevertheless, I am sure she will wish to meet Kellen, if her nurse will permit,” Jermayan said gravely.

“Of course I shall, Jermayan,” a new voice said.

A woman stepped into the light, holding a bundle in her arms. She stopped a few feet away from Kellen and set it down on the grass.

A lady.

A very young lady.

Quite the most enchanting young lady Kellen had ever seen in his life. He fell instantly under her spell, and went down on one knee to greet her properly.

Adult Elves were stunningly beautiful. Elven children had all their elders’ beauty, plus the natural appeal of the young of any species.

The combination was enchanting.

“And this is Kalania,” Jermayan said, a smile in his voice.

Kellen didn’t know how old Kalania was, but it was obvious that walking was a skill she had only lately begun to master. The tiny Elven child regarded him out of grave dark eyes, firmly clutching the hand of the slender woman dressed in rose velvet who knelt behind her.

“Come to me, sweeting,” he coaxed. “You can do it.” In the City he’d seen few children—but still far more than any of his peers had, for Kellen had spent as much of his time as he could on the streets of the Low City. The youngsters he’d seen playing in the streets there had never known how much he’d wished he could change his life for theirs. Now he wondered what it would be like to grow up in Sentarshadeen, with unicorns for playfellows. He held out his hand to the baby.

Kalania seemed to study him carefully before making up her mind. She released her nurse’s hand and came staggering toward him, her chubby arms flailing.

The other children—even Sandalon—watched in fascination as Kalania made her uncertain way across the few feet of space toward Kellen. If she showed any sign of falling, he was prepared to swoop her up before she did, but she made it, grabbing his outstretched hand in a surprisingly strong grip to steady herself.

“Oh, well done, Bright Heart!” Kellen said, scooping the baby up into his arms and getting to his feet. Kalania crowed with delight at the ride into the sky.

Kellen crossed the little distance and returned her to her nurse, knowing he’d been given a great gift tonight. Jermayan had been right. Seeing the Elven children had made him stop brooding.

After a few minutes more—Kellen found himself answering quite a number of artfully indirect not-questions about his journey to the Barrier and about Vestakia—they left the little garden again. He was very careful to edit his answers, too. There were things that these children did not need to know. It was enough to tell them that the man he had rescued Vestakia from was trying to steal her goats, and not any of the rest of it. Telling them that she was Shalkan’s great and good friend now told them that no matter what she looked like, she was not to be feared.

Once they were away from the others, he found Jermayan regarding him curiously. “Idalia told me you didn’t know the Old Tongue.”

“I don’t,” Kellen said, puzzled. There were days when he felt that getting along in the Common Speech of the City—which the Elves now used as well— was enough trouble.

He knew that there were other languages in the world—spoken over the sea, and therefore anathema in the City. Probably there had once been other languages spoken on this side of the ocean as well, before the Great War had destroyed most of civilization. The Elves had probably learned the commonest human language in order to communicate with their allies, and then never abandoned it.

“Yet you knew what Kalania’s name meant,” Jermayan pointed out reasonably. “You called her ‘Bright Heart.’ Kala means ‘heart,’ and Ania means ‘bright’ in the Old Tongue.”

“Coincidence. My nurse used to call me that,” Kellen said uncomfortably. Only he’d never had a nurse. He remembered a nurse—quite a succession of them, in fact—but those memories were at least partially false, implanted through magic by his father, the Arch-Mage Lycaelon, to conceal the fact that he’d been cared for as a child by his sister Idalia, Banished from the City as a Wildmage when Kellen was six.

And whom Lycaelon had not wanted Kellen to remember.

But it was far too pleasant an evening to think of old troubles.

“Undoubtedly a coincidence,” Jermayan said, sounding unconvinced.

“Really,” Kellen said. “If I’d suddenly developed the ability to understand Old Elvish, I’d tell you.”

Jermayan said something liquid and incomprehensible. Kellen gazed at him expectantly.

“I said that all Elven names come from the Old Tongue.”

Jermayan, Kellen suddenly realized, positively enjoyed making leading remarks—of the sort that, in any human society, would cause the hearer to respond with a question. And knowing perfectly well that Kellen’s first impulse would be to ask that question.

I am almost sure I didn’t need to find out what passes for a sense of humor among the Elves.

“I am very nearly certain that Idalia knows what your name means, and will tell me if I ask her,” Kellen said with a wicked grin.

Jermayan smiled faintly, acknowledging that Kellen had won this round. “It means ‘strong shield,’” he said. “A mayn is a shield. And now, I believe we are bidden to take our places, for the banquet is about to begin.”

Suddenly Kellen realized that for the last few minutes he’d been hearing music—a music that blended into the rain-chimes and rain-drums, but music nonetheless. He bowed elaborately to Jermayan.

“Be my guide, O Elven Knight.”

Chapter Three

The Banquet in the Garden of Leaf and Star

AFTER JERMAYAN AND Kellen left, Idalia tucked her arm reassuringly through Vestakia’s and drew her firmly along beside her. From what Vestakia had told her about her childhood, the poor girl probably had never seen so many people gathered together in one place in her entire life. “Kellen certainly left us very quickly,” Vestakia said. “I’d been hoping to talk to him,” she added wistfully.

“Maybe later,” Idalia said. She wondered how much to tell Vestakia. From the way Kellen had looked at her when she’d showed up in the festive—and very flattering—gown, someone should, and it was a good bet Vestakia didn’t know the details of Kellen’s vow, or possibly even that it existed.

Well, no time like the present. And one advantage to escorting Vestakia around was that it gave Idalia rather more privacy than she’d have otherwise. While everyone in Sentarshadeen knew that Vestakia wouldn’t be here at all if she were Tainted, she still looked like a Demon. And Elven memories were long. Even if none of the Elves now living had fought on the battlefields of the Great War, the fathers and grandfathers of many of those here tonight had.

“You know that Kellen is a Wildmage—as your mother was,” Idalia began slowly. “And you know the price we pay for our magic—the vows and obligations we offer up to the Gods…”

“Oh, Blessed Lady!” Vestakia gasped, stopping dead and clutching Idalia’s arm. “He’s not going to die?

“No, no—nothing like that,” Idalia said hastily, remembering suddenly that Idalia’s mother had given up twenty years of her lifespan in exchange for Vestakia’s human spirit. Quickly she explained Kellen’s obligation—and the reason why Kellen was able to spend so very much time in the company of a unicorn.

“Not many people know,” she finished. “Most of the time it doesn’t… impinge.”

To her surprise—and secret delight—Vestakia gave a great whoop of laughter, startling the Elves walking nearby.

“Oh! Oh, my,” the girl said. She sobered quickly, glancing around, then looked back at Idalia. “Does that mean I—he and I—won’t see each other at all?”

“I don’t know,” Idalia said honestly. “But if you don’t see him, try not to mind too much. It won’t be because he doesn’t like you, or care about you. Rather too much the reverse, perhaps. I know he wants you to be happy here; he is very, very concerned that you are comfortable.”

“With water—and hot water, too—available for the turning of a handle? And every kind of food—fruit, too!—there when I reach out my hand? And such a warm soft bed that I don’t think I shall ever be cold again? How can he wonder?” Vestakia asked in bafflement.

“I think he is worried that the people may be unkind,” Idalia said gently, trying not to smile.

Vestakia sniffed, shaking her head. “It isn’t important, now that they know in their heads that I want to help, and I know that eventually their hearts will understand. Yes, they stare—and point at me when they think I am not looking. But no one will try to kill me here for what I am, and… there are goats here, too. I can herd them, and milk them, and make curds and cheese. I can deliver a kid if the nanny has trouble. I can be useful, even beyond making sure that They do not come here. The Elves will see that, too, with time.” She smiled shyly. “You know, and they surely know, that you cannot lie to an animal. They know when someone is good or bad. Sooner or later most people here will understand in their hearts. And until then, there are so many wonderful things to see, and to do—and not everyone turns and runs, you know. Some talk to me, and—” Vestakia’s eyes grew wide, and she lowered her voice, as if about to confide a great wonder. “There are books here, Idalia! Oh, hundreds of them! I do not read very well—we only had one or two that Mama traded for—beyond her three Books, and those of course I could not read—so I learned my letters out of them and memorized them long ago. But with all the books here to practice on, soon I shall read so much better than before…”

Vestakia was quite right about being able to make a place for herself in Sentarshadeen, Idalia thought. She’d probably been a very good goatherd back in the Lost Lands—calm, cheerful, and patient, all qualities one needed when dealing with goats. Idalia tried to imagine one of the spoiled daughters of the City in Vestakia’s situation—wrenched away from everything she knew, and dropped among a strange people who despised her. No matter how luxurious the surroundings, Idalia knew that the Armethaliehan girl would be weeping and complaining, demanding that things be adjusted to her liking.

But Vestakia had not complained once. She sounded so happy—and so determined to be happy—that Idalia kept her fears of the future to herself. If war came—when war came—there would be no room in it for the quiet, gentle future Vestakia spoke of so easily.

And yet—

And yet Vestakia surely knew that too. Or guessed it, at least. She was the daughter of a Demon. She knew what the Endarkened did, and wanted. So the quiet, gentle future she was envisioning was one she must know could not last for long.

She and Idalia were very much more alike than Idalia had thought, for Vestakia was seizing her own chance for peace and joy while it was there, and would live every moment that had been granted her to the fullest.

And when trouble came, as it would—well, Idalia had the feeling that Vestakia would meet it head-on.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

ONE thing about the evening did match Kellen’s expectations of how a formal banquet would go, and that was that he was seated at the same table as the King and Queen. Idalia and Jermayan were there as well, and Vestakia, and Sandalon with Lairamo.

He was glad to see both Vestakia and Sandalon, and surprised to see both of them together, though Sandalon was next to him, and Vestakia was at the far end of the table. He supposed that Andoreniel and Ashaniel were making a point. And Vestakia deserved to be here as much as he and Jermayan did.

Sandalon was gleefully delighted to be among the adults, and painfully conscious of his manners.

“You won’t go away again, will you, Kellen—I mean, it would be interesting to know if you contemplated a journey soon, wouldn’t it?” he said, looking up at Lairamo for approval.

“I don’t know if I’ll have to go away again, Sandalon,” Kellen said gently. “I hope I won’t. I’ll tell you as soon as I know. I can promise that.”

“Good!” the boy said. “I hope you won’t have to go away either. Idalia was sad while you were gone. She stayed in her house and wouldn’t talk to anyone.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THE banquet went on until quite late. There were more—and more elaborate— dishes offered than Kellen had yet seen, but fortunately he quickly realized he didn’t have to try everything offered, and stuck to the things he could identify.

Or so he thought. The Elven love of illusion extended even to their culinary arts—the slice of venison in sauce he took turned out to be made of mushrooms, and the “roast goose” was not fowl, but fish. Still, both were perfectly edible, even delicious. And a roast turnip could look like few other things—though he was a little surprised to find it had been hollowed out and stuffed with apple.

At one point Kellen looked up to find Vestakia gone, and realized that she must have slipped out sometime after the main courses were served—at least, he didn’t see her again during the evening.

He wished he could do the same. Though the banquet was entertaining in an exotic fashion, it was tiring, and Kellen couldn’t help feeling that there were more important things to be doing than throwing a big party right now. While he tried to keep from worrying about tomorrow’s Council meeting, he was a human, not an Elf, and he didn’t have their seeming ability to let tomorrow take care of itself.

And he did know what was proper good manners in this situation, having checked with Jermayan to make sure. So despite the fact that he’d rather have been out in the meadow with the unicorns—despite the rain—or back in his own home, he stayed at the banquet through the long dessert course—iced cakes, candied fruits, flavored ices, custards, and even xocalatl—did his best to make polite conversation with dozens of people whose names he was sure he wouldn’t remember in the morning, and entertained himself with thinking how horrified his peers back in Armethalieh would be if they could only see him now.

Eventually the last round of fruit cordials had been poured and drunk. Fortunately there didn’t seem to be very much alcohol at all in Elven wines and cordials, but since custom required everyone to change tables for every course of the desserts—and there were a lot of courses—Kellen was just about as confused as to just where in the garden he was as if he’d been drinking strong Armathaliehan ale.

“But now the hour grows late, and we do not wish to weary those whom we also honor,” Ashaniel said, rising gracefully to her feet. “And so we give grace to the night and to the season, and bid you all fair rest and refreshment in the name of Leaf and Star!”

At that signal, the guests began to prepare to depart. Kellen was already on his feet. He looked around, but couldn’t see Jermayan or Idalia anywhere. It didn’t matter. He could catch up with Idalia at home.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

BUT when he reached the house once more, Idalia wasn’t there.

No reason to wait up for her, Kellen told himself, hanging up his cloak and shaking out his rainshade before setting it in its tray to finish drying. She’d probably stopped to talk to friends. He’d just make sure to leave a few lamps burning for her, and make sure the stove had plenty of fuel.

All in all, his first Elven banquet hadn’t been all that bad, he decided, folding his new finery neatly and climbing into bed.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

SINCE the rains had returned—with a vengeance—the brooks and streams that criss-crossed Sentarshadeen had refilled, and in some cases done more than that. It was not the ruinous flooding that could have occurred if the rains had been let to reach the Elven Lands unchecked, but it could have been messy and inconvenient, so the banks of some of the shallower tributaries had been shored up and reinforced. Since the work had been done by Elves, it had been done beautifully, with walls of brick and stone and tile edging the rivulets, until they took on much the look of canals.

Whoever had been looking after Jermayan’s house while he was gone was apparently someone with a lot of free time to make certain that Jermayan never be inconvenienced by the flooding of his home. This highly industrious individual had built the restraining walls especially high. Higher, in fact, than the footbridge to the front door, which fitted as neatly into it as if they had always been meant to be together.

In one way, that was a good thing, because the little stream that flowed around the cottage was running very high. However, this conscientious person had not been particularly good at imagining what would happen if the stream actually did get that high, because that little footbridge should have been raised along with the walls.

When he and Idalia reached it, Jermayan cleared his throat uncomfortably, regarding the bridge.

“Generally it is, ah—”

“Drier?” Idalia suggested mischievously.

“Yes. Drier. In the sense that the bridge is not quite so wet.”

“It would, of course, be drier if it were not raining,” Idalia said agreeably, watching the river foam over the planks of the bridge. To be fair, the bridge was not so very much underwater.

“It would be churlish of me to expect an honored guest to ruin her dancing shoes because of my unruly stream,” Jermayan said decisively. He advanced upon Idalia and swooped her up into his arms before she could protest.

Idalia was not a small woman, but she’d felt in no danger of being dropped as Jermayan carried her across the bridge and up the walk, managing both their rainshades with elegant ease. In fact, it was a remarkably pleasant experience; there was something significant in allowing someone else to take charge of her safety for once. Even in so small a thing as keeping her feet from being soaked. As Jermayan carried her over the stream, she had the rather light-headed sensation of crossing something more important than just a bit of running water.

The bridge was hung with pale blue lanterns, and there were more at the door. The ones at the door were in the shape of seashells, a watery motif particularly suited to the weather, and their surfaces were starred and speckled with flecks of green.

Jermayan thrust the door open and set her down inside.

“We arrive without incident,” he observed. “Be welcome, Idalia, in my home and at my hearth.”

“I am welcome,” Idalia said, removing her raincape and furling her rain-shade. “And it’s quite… dry.”

“And perhaps the stream will subside by morning, though I do doubt it. There is tea, of course, or if you prefer, I might warm some cordial.”

“Tea, I think,” Idalia said. “There has been quite enough cordial this evening.”

Jermayan went off to prepare the tea, after setting his cloak aside. The cottage was larger than the guesthouses, and had a separate kitchen. While he was gone, she looked around.

It much resembled his home in Ondoladeshiron, where she had once been a frequent guest. There were several familiar tapestries hung upon the walls, and between them, on small shelves, exquisite pieces of Elvenware, meant for display and not for use.

A low table was pulled up to one of the long padded benches that lined the room. It was heaped with books—both conventional bound books, and the older scrolls that some Elves still preferred. A xaqiue board with a half-finished game took up about half the table.

In an open case on the bench was Jermayan’s harp.

It was a small instrument that could be held in the crook of one arm, suitable for carrying into the field. The wood was black with age, and polished smooth by the caress of countless hands over the centuries, and it was strung with silver.

An Elven Knight was expected to learn to master at least one of the “gentler arts” as well as those of war and warfare; most chose something like carving, mosaic-setting, or gardening, all things where beauty could be achieved in the laying out of mathematical designs according to established rules. A slightly smaller number became musicians, but were players rather than composers. Very few chose the more challenging realms of music composition, poetry, or the creative visual arts.

But Jermayan, being Jermayan, could never do anything by halves. He had taken up and mastered several instruments, the harp becoming his favorite—and he wrote music for it. Or at least, he had done so when Idalia had last known him.

She did not touch the harp herself, for she was feeling unwontedly sensitive, and was afraid she might pick up far more than she wanted or he intended if she did so. Instead, she settled herself beside the fire to wait.

He came in with tea set out on a footed tray; the ones like it in her home were of carved wood, but this one was actually more practical if you were going to carry liquid about, being made of sculpted metal with an inlay of glass mosaic. She made a mental note to commission one like it, but knew better than to admire it—because Jermayan would immediately try to give it to her.

Instead, when he put it down carefully between them and settled himself, she poured tea for both of them and nodded toward the harp. “I’d been wondering if you still played,” she’d said, in order to keep the stillness from deepening into the uncomfortable. “I was hoping nothing had happened to make you lose interest—” Then she smiled. “Or worse, decide that the harp wasn’t challenging enough and move on to the pandehorn!”

“Ah, the ill woodwind that never blows good,” he replied with a rare chuckle. “No indeed. I have found a great deal of comfort in music. And I have continued to compose as well.” And without waiting for her to ask, he set down his tea and reached for the harp and began to play.

It was not a piece with which she was familiar, and within moments, she fell under the spell of it. If this was one of Jermayan’s own works, he had improved out of all expectation as a composer, and he had been good to begin with.

But it was not a comfortable piece, nor could it be described as “pretty,” though it was so very powerful that before long Idalia had found her eyes stinging with unshed tears. It was full of a deep sadness and inarticulate longing. There was a sense of things left unfinished, not because they had been abandoned willingly, but because abandonment had been forced.

Even the ending cried out with emptiness that yearned to be filled.

Idalia swallowed down the lump in her throat, and said, thickly, “It’s very— beautiful.”

Jermayan set the harp aside, and replied, almost casually, “I wrote it about you. And for you. After you left Ondoladeshiron.”

But then, before she could manage to stammer anything in reply to that astonishing statement, he turned, and the gentle smile he graced her with took her breath away.

“I shall have to write something happier now.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THE next thing Kellen knew was that someone was shaking him, and watery morning light was streaming through his windows.

“Sometimes I think you’d sleep through a unicorn stampede! Wake up, slugabed!”

“Idalia?”

Groggily, Kellen sat up and stared at his sister.

She was still wearing the dress she’d worn last night. Hadn’t she been home?

“Council meeting in less than an hour. You’ve barely got time to get up and dressed—and I’ve got to change, too.”

Kellen abandoned the question of where Idalia had spent the night in favor of more pressing issues. He really didn’t want to go to the meeting.

“Why do I—?” he began.

But Idalia, seeing him awake, was already leaving the room.

If he wanted to argue his point, Kellen realized, he was going to have to be up and dressed to do it. He flung back the covers, shuddering at the chill of the air, and grabbed for his bedrobe. Wrapping it firmly around him—and wondering where his house boots had gotten to this time—he hurried over to the clothes-press. Grabbing the first things that came to hand—it really didn’t matter much, since all his Elven clothing was suitable and becoming—he dressed quickly, dragged a comb through his now almost shoulder-length hair (thankful that he’d taken the time to unbraid it last night before going to bed), and hurried into the outer room, boots in hand.

When he came out of the bathroom, Idalia was ready. She was wearing Elven clothing today instead of her usual Wildwood buckskins: boots and tunic and a knee-length coat in several shades of violet.

“Ready? Good,” she said.

“But I haven’t had breakfast,” Kellen complained.

“Then you should have gotten up earlier,” Idalia said implacably.

“And I don’t really see why I have to go at all,” Kellen added mutinously. “I don’t know anything about… whatever the Council is going to talk about.”

“Then it’s time you learned,” Idalia said, reaching into the cupboard and handing him a chunk of yellow cheese, a small loaf of bread, and an apple. “The Council will be discussing its plans. Attending meetings like this is something Knight-Mages do, so you’d better get used to it. Besides, you might even be helpful.” She reached up and patted him on the shoulder.

Kellen made a rude noise, and bit into the cheese. Since he could hardly say he wasn’t a Knight-Mage, he supposed he’d better go along to the Council meeting. At least the afternoon promised to be more interesting. He’d be meeting Jermayan for his first formal lessons in knightly practice then.

Jermayan had taught Kellen all he could on the way to the Barrier, and the fact that Kellen’s Wildmage gifts lay in that direction helped a great deal. But that was no substitute for training and practice—a lot of practice—under conditions that Jermayan simply hadn’t been able to reproduce on the trail. Kellen was looking forward to continuing his education.

And meanwhile, he guessed he was pretty sure he knew where Idalia had been last night, and he was happy for both her and Jermayan. He just hoped that neither one of them would start quoting poetry at him.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

ONE concession that had been made to the eternal rain was that a slatted wooden pathway had now been laid across the meadow to the door of the House, so that one arrived on the doorstep, if not quite dry-shod, at least not covered in mud.

Just as on the previous occasion on which Kellen had been brought to a meeting of the Council, he and Idalia were met on the doorstep and conducted deep within the House, to a windowless circular chamber deep within the center of the Palace.

Hanging from its walls were thirteen narrow banners of brightly colored silk, each bearing a single elaborate symbol worked upon it in shining silver. The last time, they’d been a complete mystery to Kellen, but he knew a little more about the Elves now.

Nine for the Nine Cities, probably, but that leaves four. That one symbol almost looks like the Great Seal of Armethalieh: could the other four be for the Other Races? Men, Centaurs, and … but that doesn’t work either, because there are more other races than four, aren’t there? Fauns, and selkies, and dryads, and unicorns, and

Despite Idalia’s insistence that they were going to be late, she and Kellen had been the first to arrive. Now his musings were interrupted by the arrival of the others: Ashaniel and Andoreniel, Morusil, Ainalundore, Tyendimarquen, and two others he’d met and learned the names of the night before: Dargainon and Sorvare.

Six of the seven Elves took their seats around the large round table of gleaming pale wood—Tyendimarquen remained standing. In the table’s center, the inlay of the symbol of the royal house gleamed as brightly as if it were aflame, reflecting the illumination of the mirrored lamps which hung above it.

Though Kellen and Idalia were by far the most plainly-dressed of the group, Kellen found he felt no sense of awkwardness, and Idalia obviously felt perfectly at ease. He supposed that though the Elves could make someone feel uncomfortable and out-of-place if they chose, they obviously weren’t choosing to do so on this occasion.

Or perhaps what he was wearing was perfectly suitable for the situation.

As before, the doors swung shut behind them, seemingly of their own volition, and Tyendimarquen slid several bolts into place, locking it securely. As she slid the last of the bolts home, Andoreniel raised his hand and sketched a small shape in the air, and once again Kellen felt a brief sense of pressure, as the room was magically sealed against all manner of intrusion and eavesdropping, both magical and mundane.

“Now we may begin,” Andoreniel said, when Tyendimarquen had taken her seat. “We call this meeting to discuss what provision we have made thus far in dealing with the Enemy, and what provision we have yet to make.”

Ainalundore was the first to speak. He rose gracefully to his feet—as if the Elves ever did anything awkwardly—and began to speak in measured tones.

Kellen discovered that a report on the drought had been sent to the Viceroys of the other eight Elven cities: Ondoladeshiron, Lerkalpoldara, Windalorianan, Deskethomaynel, Thultafoniseen, Valwendigorean, Realthataladon, and Ysterialpoerin, to explain that it had been discovered to be the work of the Enemy. A further report had been sent when the Barrier had fallen, explaining that with the destruction of the Enemy’s first ploy, further attacks could be expected. Response from the other cities, according to Ainalundore, had been gratifying; Andoreniel could be assured of their vigilance, and could expect regular reports.

That’s it? Kellen thought in disbelief. That’s all? Shadow Mountain is waking up againthe biggest threat in a thousand yearsand all the Elves are going to do about it is WRlTE REPORTS?

Dargainon was next to speak. And before he did so, he glanced aside at Kellen and Idalia. Particularly at Kellen.

“The Enemy is long-lived, as are we; it is my assumption, which I know is shared by others on this Council, that as this last attack upon Sentarshadeen was a subtle one, long in the planning and execution, so is the next move in this campaign likely to be. The Enemy has learned from his mistakes; we believe that he is unlikely to make any sudden or overt attacks; rather, this war is likely to be a slow and drawn-out campaign of attrition. This would have had a great likelihood of success; had it not been for the efforts of Idalia Wildmage, we probably would not have known it for an attack until it was too late.” He bowed a little to Idalia, who in her turn bowed back.

“Nevertheless, there are other considerations. We cannot be sure of what the next move may be. It has been suggested, since Idalia Wildmage is unable to advise us from what direction the next attack of the Enemy may come, nor are the woman Vestakia’s abilities reliable in that regard, it is an important consideration to look to the safety of our children. Therefore, a plan is presented for the approval of the Council to secure their safety by conveying all of our children to the Crowned Horns of the Moon.”

Kellen looked questioningly at Idalia.

“A fortress high in the Mystral Mountains, that was never taken during the War. A good choice,” she said in an undertone.

A good choice it might be, but that hardly prevented a number of comments from being made on it, even though Kellen got the impression that this was old business that had been hashed out pretty thoroughly before the Council met today. At last it was decided by Andoreniel that the plan would go forward as it stood. Convoys from each of the Nine Cities would begin stocking the fortress immediately. In a few weeks, once winter had made travel in the higher elevations a bit dryer, parties of Elven Knights would begin taking groups of children to the fortress a few at a time, where they would remain with their protectors and guardians until the situation with the Enemy had changed.

Or until they’ve all grown up, Kellen thought wryly. He didn’t know how long that would take, but if Demons were immortal, and Elves were very long-lived, neither side might be in a real hurry about going to war, inevitable as it might seem.

Sandalon, of course, being the Heir, would be the greatest prize for any enemy to capture, and for that reason, the young Prince would be sent at some point in the middle of this migration—as neither the first nor the last—to avoid drawing attention to him.

He’ll hate that, Kellen thought ruefully. But maybe, among all those kids from the other cities, he’ll find some his own age to play with. He hoped something like that would happen, for the boy’s sake. And he was just as glad not to be the one to have to tell Sandalon he was being sent away from the people and things he’d known all his life.

“Let it be done,” Andoreniel said, ending the discussion.

“And now,” Ashaniel said, sounding almost reluctant, “there is the matter of the Others. If the Enemy walks again, in the end, its foe is all the children of the Light, not merely the Children of Leaf and Star.”

There was a moment of silence around the Council table.

“Certainly they must be told,” Tyendimarquen said unwillingly. “Yet to waste good counsel on those who would not believe it, when such telling might make matters worse, is the action of a fool.”

“The High Hills will listen,” Idalia said. “They, too, have felt some of the effect of the Barrier and its fall. You still trade with the High Hills, after all. And as for the Otherfolk, the creatures of forest and woodland—the unicorns can carry your warning there, and be believed.”

Tyendimarquen seemed relieved. “Yes. There is a good solution, Idalia. We will warn the High Hills, and the Other Folk, and let both of them spread the warning as they will.”

“The Out Islands may well listen,” said Ashaniel, thoughtfully. “Let the unicorns also take word to the People of the Water, for the merfolk and the Out Islanders are allies still.”

“But what about Armethalieh?” Kellen said, asking the question before he could stop himself. “I mean… the Mountain Traders don’t trade with Armethalieh, not directly, and not at this season. They won’t pass a warning on, or if they do, the City won’t believe it. The City needs to be warned about the Endarkened.”

There was another long moment of silence, as all the Elves looked at each other, seeming to share a moment of unspoken communication.

“Surely it would grieve us to see any of the Children of the Light fall to the Great Enemy, even those who inhabit the Golden City, Kellen Knight-Mage,” Sorvare said slowly. “But as one who has lately lived within her walls, you more than most will understand that it is no light matter for one of the Children of Leaf and Star to attempt to carry a warning there. Perhaps such a warning would be believed. Perhaps—and you may search your own heart for the truth of my conjecture—it would be seen as a form of attack, and gain us, instead of an ally, a new enemy at a time when we can ill afford one. And so I must counsel caution in any attempt to deal with Armethalieh directly, lest intended good become unimagined harm.”

“It is not impossible that we will find an ally of the proper sort to carry our message to Armethalieh, Kellen,” Morusil added kindly. “Perhaps an Out Island captain, for instance. But neither you nor Idalia can return there under pain of death, and our kind is now similarly barred from setting foot upon City lands. Still, knowing the Enemy’s ways, we will do what we can.”

‘The proper sort’ being human, Kellen thought in dismayed realization. Both Morusil and Sorvare were right—neither he nor Idalia could act as the Elves’ envoy, and if the Elves couldn’t go themselves, what did that leave? And if the High Mages saw the Elves’ warning not as a help, but as an attack…

He couldn’t fault their logic. But all the same, his mind did go back to the words the Demon had taunted him with back at the Barrier: that when war came, the Elves would look to their own first.

Wasn’t that just what they were doing now?

And if someone did manage to warn Armethalieh now, would it do any good? Was there anyone who would be believed?

The meeting ended, with plans having been made to remove the Elven children to the Fortress of the Crowned Horns and to send a message—soon—to those lands bordering on those of the Elves that Shadow Mountain was once more spreading its blight across the face of the land. Once more Andoreniel dismissed the seal that sequestered the Council chamber, and the Elves departed to their tasks.

Ashaniel stopped Kellen as he was about to leave.

“Perhaps you do not think we act with sufficient haste, Kellen Knight-Mage,” Ashaniel suggested, placing her hand upon his arm.

Kellen glanced wildly around for Idalia, trying to locate her without seeming rude. But she was nowhere to be seen.

“Lady Ashaniel, I’m really sorry if I offended anybody today,” Kellen said. “It’s just that I…” He tried to think of how to phrase his thought politely, and gave up. “If there’s going to be a war, we should be preparing for it. That’s all.”

“Yet to say what form our preparations must take, when the Enemy has not yet declared the shape of his own intention, might be to doom us all,” Ashaniel said gently. “We have met the Enemy upon the battlefield twice before, and by the grace of Leaf and Star, we prevailed. Fear not for your friends. They will be warned in good time.” She turned away.

They’re not my friends, Kellen thought with a sigh. He couldn’t think of one person back in Armethalieh that he could reasonably call a friend… but that hardly meant he wanted the City to fall to a Demon attack. There were hundreds, thousands of perfectly innocent people there, people who were harming no one, leading contented lives, trying to be good to each other, and if they were unreasonably prejudiced about outsiders, well, those prejudices had been carefully taught and carefully nurtured…

He left the Council chamber. An Elf was waiting for him in the hallway, to conduct him back down the labyrinth of passageways that led to the front door of the House of Leaf and Star. Kellen was fairly good at not getting lost, but he was glad of the guide; he was willing to bet that he hadn’t taken the same route to or from the Council chamber twice.

Idalia was waiting for him on the portico.

“Ready to head over to the House of Sword and Shield? You look like you could stand to hit something,” she said.

Kellen groaned faintly. “Ashaniel was just telling me not to worry, because the Elves have everything under control, and the moment They make a move, the Elves will make the appropriate response. But what if it’s something else like the Barrier? They already know that They are a threat, and out there: why don’t they just gather up the biggest army they can and go get them?”

Idalia pulled up the hood of her raincape and stepped off the portico, unfurling her rainshade as she did. Kellen followed, copying her gestures. For a minute or two they walked down the wooden path through the rain in silence.

“Those are reasonable questions, considering how little you actually know about the Enemy—and the Elves don’t really know all that much more. For instance, they don’t really know how strong the Enemy is, either in terms of numbers or magic—but they do know that if They can call in as many allies and slaves as They could in the Last War, They can probably put a larger army into the field than the Nine Cities can, and this time the Elves can’t count on having much in the way of human allies. Next, the Elves don’t have any magic, while the Enemy are the strongest Mages there are. I’m not even sure that if we got all the Wild-mages, and all the High Mages, and all the Good Otherfolk to work together there’d be as much magic on our side as there is on the Enemy side. Not after the Great War and the death of the dragons.”

“That’s comforting—I don’t think,” Kellen said uneasily. “Especially since the High Mages won’t fight on the same side as Wildmages. Or Elves.”

Idalia shrugged. “They might, eventually. But it doesn’t really matter. Because you can’t attack what you can’t find, and no one’s exactly sure where Shadow Mountain is. It might not even be entirely in this world. North of here, that’s all I know. That’s all anyone knows. And well-enough shielded that all the Seeking spells in the world aren’t going to find it. So… we can’t find the Enemy stronghold, and if we could find it, we don’t have the strength to attack it and win.”

“So what are we going to do?” Kellen asked.

“What Ashaniel said. Wait… and hope,” Idalia said. “I know it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the Elves have fought the Enemy before, and won. And once we see what They are going to do, we might be able to think of something creative.” Now she smiled a little. “That is one of the strongest weapons we have, actually. No creature of the Enemy can match our creativity and imagination— the ancient saying is, ‘The Endarkened cannot make, they can only mar.’ No matter what else has happened to the Endarkened, I doubt that has changed.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THE World Without Sun was changeless and eternal. Not for its inhabitants the ceaseless erosion and decay of the seasons of the Bright World: theirs was a world of stone and darkness, utterly suited to their nature.

The Endarkened did not change. Let the Elves dwindle and fade, becoming a mockery of what they once were. Let the humans pass from savagery to senescence without ever reaching true civilization. The Endarkened would remain just as they had been at the moment that He Who Is had first created them, an unchanging tribute to His foresight and wisdom.

And in the end, they would triumph, because of their unchanging nature. Because in all the millennia of their existence, they had never forgotten that they had one goal, and one goal only.

The utter destruction of all who walked in the Light.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

UPON her Rising—for though adult Endarkened did not sleep, they regularly entered a sort of deep trance—Queen Savilla summoned her slaves, and as they groomed her, she heard, as was her custom, the Petitions of the Grooming Chamber. These were usually—though not always—trivial matters of a personal nature, suited to the surroundings.

But today, though she was careful to give no sign of it to her courtiers and attendants, her thoughts were not upon the endless details of her Court, but elsewhere, for the news from the Bright World was good.

Things were going especially well in Armethalieh. Conditions were deteriorating in the City, even as her human agent moved upward in influence and position, and soon—very soon, as the Endarkened reckoned things—he would be in a position to influence, if not dictate, policy on the High Council itself. Then she could move on to the next step in her plans: to bring the Golden City over to the Endarkened side, its resources intact, its people ripe to feed the Endarkened need for ever more power.

Savilla smiled inwardly. In a thousand generations of the Endarkened, such an audacious coup had never been attempted. The single largest enclave of humans in the land; an inexhaustible supply of power, slaves, and food—allying itself with the Endarkened willingly because they would have convinced themselves that all the rest of the Brightworlders were their implacable foes and only the Endarkened—the poor, misunderstood, Endarkened!—could save them.

With Armethalieh as their vassal, the Endarkened would be invincible. And all it would require would be the subjugation of the High Council—a handful of foolish humans. The High Council had turned everyone else in the Golden City into witless sheep long ago. The Armethaliehans would do whatever their Mage-masters told them to, and ask no questions.

Once the business of the Grooming Chamber had been dealt with, Savilla dismissed her attendants and headed for her Stone Garden, a lovely private monument to her past triumphs in the Endarkened’s greatest art, that of torture. The Stone Garden belonged to her alone, and her subjects knew that she was never to be disturbed there.

But today was different.

Prince Zyperis stood at the gateway to the garden, obviously waiting for her.

“I wondered if I might walk with you today,” he said deferentially, furling his great scarlet wings tight to his body submissively.

“Of course,” Savilla said graciously. So her son and lover wanted something, did he? She was not entirely displeased. It was the way of their kind. He was a promising youngster. But the greater the promise, the greater the threat.

She offered him her arm. He took it, and the two of them passed into the garden. For a while Zyperis made idle conversation, speaking with knowledgeable pleasure about the history of her trophies, for he had been present at the collection of some of them.

Within each colored crystal, Savilla had trapped some moment of agony of one of her special victims, so that she could treasure it forever. As she and Zyperis strolled along the paths where nothing grew, she would stop occasionally to waken a stone into life with a touch of her power.

—Here, the death of the last of the bearwards. They had been formidable enemies to many of Uralesse’s slave-races; strong as giants, and utterly committed to the Light. Their inroads had weakened Uralesse to the point where it had been possible for her to destroy him and take the Shadow Throne. Yet flay them of their bearskins, strip them of their magic, and they were as weak and vulnerable as any human. She had killed his mate and his cubs before his eyes, savoring their blended agony…

—There, the death of a nest of firesprites. They were difficult to torture; it had required all her creativity. But water, or better yet ice … oh, yes, that had served her very well.

The minds and souls represented here were long expended, gone to fuel her magic. But the trophies of her past triumphs remained.

Zyperis was silent for some time, conscious of the honor of being invited into Savilla’s private garden. But at last, as she had known he would, he raised the true reason for his visit.

“How goes the war, my sweet Crown of Pain? I know the destruction of the Barrier was only the merest and most minor of setbacks, but since the moment when it fell, you have told me nothing,” he said, pouting prettily. “I languish in ignorance that only you can remove.”

“You will be pleased,” Savilla said, allowing her long ivory fangs to gleam in a smile of pleasure. “Our agent in Armethalieh rises higher in the confidence of the Arch-Mage, and will soon gain a seat on the High Council itself. From there it should be a simple task for him to convince Lycaelon and the rest that we are not the true enemy, and that someone else—it hardly matters who!—has misled them all these centuries for his own fell purposes. I suspect they will pounce upon some long-dead Arch-Mage whose progeny they wish to discredit as the source of their misinformation, and proceed to purge their own histories of anything they believe to be tainted by his hand and thoughts.”

Zyperis preened with delight. “Then they shall—so they think—become our allies, when in fact they will become our slaves. I have an idea, my Liege-Mother. You must convince them that there is a vast conspiracy of Wildmages ready to destroy their city, allied with the Elves. They already loathe both the Elves and the Wild Magic, and the Arch-Mage will not soon forget that his own son was Banished for dabbling in it. The combination should drive them absolutely wild. That way, we can save them from the two things they hate and fear the most— Elves and Wildmages.”

“I do not think my agent will find that very difficult,” Savilla said, reluctant approval in her voice.

It was a good idea—a clever idea—one more proof, if she needed it, that inevitably Zyperis would someday make a try for the Shadow Throne. So the longer she could keep him off-balance, uncertain of his ability, the longer it would take for that day to come.

“But it will take time to get him onto the Council, and time for him to eliminate his rivals,” she said, as if the idea had just occurred to her. “Until his position is secure, we have to keep the Elves securely occupied with their own problems. We must keep them from managing to warn Armethalieh. How do you propose to do that?”

She stopped strolling and gazed demandingly into his eyes.

Zyperis’s wings unfurled and drooped slightly, and Savilla felt a hot spark of triumph. Obviously the boy hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“We could carry off their messengers,” he suggested doubtfully.

“But we don’t want to act openly… yet,” Savilla said. “And direct opposition only strengthens the foe’s will to resist. No. The Elves have no real interest in warning Armethalieh, so we will make it easy for them to avoid it. We will provide a diversion that will occupy all their energy… the sacrifice of a pawn.”

“Oh, don’t tease me so!” Zyperis begged. “You’ve had a plan all along—you know you have. Tell me what it is!”

“No,” Savilla said archly. “I don’t think I shall. You have not yet impressed me with your… sufficiently sincere desire to know.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THE House of Shield and Sword was located on the southern edge of the city. From his rambles with Sandalon, Kellen had gotten the impression he knew the city fairly well, but somehow this was one of the places that had never been included on their walks.

It was out beyond the firing kilns, separated from the city proper by a dense plantation of balsam-bough trees. There was no pathway through the forest; nothing to indicate that anything lay beyond the evergreens but more woodland. If Idalia had not been with him, Kellen might well have turned back at the forest’s edge.

“Here you are,” Idalia said, stopping at the far side of the trees. “Think you can find your way from here?”

“I… oh.”

A whole pocket canyon spread out before him, its floor rich with tall grass. The forest, he realized, had been planted—and carefully tended—to screen its opening. Horses grazed loose in the meadow, their coats shiny with rain.

About halfway down the canyon floor was the House of Sword and Shield.

Like all Elven architecture, it blended in to its surroundings so harmoniously it seemed to have grown there instead of being built. Unlike the House of Leaf and Star, it was all of simple golden stone except for the roof; one story, and with the high-peaked roof making it look even lower and wider.

“Why is it out here in the middle of nowhere?” Kellen asked.

“You’ll have to ask Jermayan,” Idalia said, amused. “I think he’s coming now.”

She pointed. A rider was coming toward them. Jermayan, and Valdien.

Today the Elven Knight wore no armor at all, merely a simple tunic and leggings in green beneath his raincape, with soft boots to match, and Valdien wore only a simple halter. Elf and destrier moved as one being, and Kellen wondered absently if he could learn to ride a horse, and if he could ever manage to equal Jermayan’s easy grace.

“The student approaches,” Jermayan observed. “I promise, Idalia, that he will be returned to you… reasonably unscathed.”

“Oh, don’t bother on my account,” Idalia said cheerfully. “As The Book of Stars tells us, ‘There is nothing worth knowing that is not bought without effort or pain!’ I’ll see you later.” She turned away, walking back through the pines.

Jermayan dismounted from Valdien and slipped the halter from Valdien’s head.

“Come,” Jermayan said to Kellen, beginning to walk back toward the House of Sword and Shield. “It is time for your proper training to begin.”

Valdien followed Kellen and Jermayan like a hopeful pet, occasionally nudging Jermayan in the back.

Kellen felt a flutter of nervousness at the pit of his stomach. It wasn’t that he doubted his own skill—he didn’t; he was a Knight-Mage after all. But all of his experience with formal training of any kind had been disastrous, and all of a sudden he was afraid that this was going to turn out the same way.

“Jermayan—” he said, stopping.

His friend looked at him questioningly.

“I’m… well, I’m not very good at some things,” Kellen said awkwardly.

“That,” said Jermayan, “is why you are here. The House of Sword and Shield has trained Knight-Mages in the past. The House remembers.”

“But I…” There just wasn’t any good way to say this! “I don’t want to make trouble.” Or get into trouble. “I just don’t… I asked the Council a question this morning,” he admitted dolefully.

That surprised a startled laugh from Jermayan.

“No doubt certain members of the Council were surprised by your boldness, and were instantly forthcoming,” he commented.

“Not really,” Kellen said with a sigh.

“But to allay your fears, there will be times within the House when questions will be encouraged, for War Manners are taught here, along with all the other arts of War. You will learn all that we can teach you, my word on that, Kellen.”

By now they had reached the doors of the House. Jermayan turned to Valdien and dismissed the stallion firmly with a pat on the shoulder. The stallion lingered for a moment, for all the world as if hoping to be invited inside, then turned and trotted off with a reluctant sigh.

Kellen realized that the building was taller than he’d thought, the height of the indoor riding rings back in Armethalieh. The doors added to that impression; they were tall enough to admit two mounted knights riding side-by-side.

But they were not constructed like the doors back home. These seemed designed to fold back in four panels rather than just open. Jermayan opened one tall narrow panel, and the two of them stepped inside.

“Be welcome in the House of Sword and Shield, home to all who bear the sword for the Nine Cities,” Jermayan said formally.

Kellen looked around.

The first thing that caught his attention was the ring of steel on steel. In the center of the room, four armored Knights whirled and danced around one another, swords flashing in a deadly pattern of light and motion. Kellen studied them, his attention caught. Were three attacking the one? Was it two against two? It was impossible for him to tell; they moved so fast…

Then a fifth man, unarmored, wearing dark green robes, his hair the silver-blue of great age, walked into the midst of them. All four immediately put up their swords. The man began talking, too low for Kellen to hear.

“Belesharon is one of our greatest teachers of the sword,” Jermayan said quietly. “His father once trained a Knight-Mage. He looks forward to meeting you.”

Kellen blinked, slowly reasoning it out. If Belesharon’s father had trained a Knight-Mage, that meant that Belesharon’s father had fought in the Great War, since that was the last time there’d been any Knight-Mages. He looked away from the armored Knights, unwilling to draw Belesharon’s attention to him any earlier than he had to.

Although, if he could actually ask Belesharon questions…

Kellen looked around as he pulled off his sopping raincape and hung it next to Jermayan’s on one of the row of hooks beside the door. Having seen on the night of the banquet how few Elven children there were, he didn’t expect this place to be actually crowded, even if, as Jermayan implied, all the Elven Knights from all the Nine Cities were trained here, so he wasn’t terribly surprised.

But if we’re going to war… and this is all we can put into the field…

Including the four in armor, there were about twenty Knights in the room. Some of them, to Kellen’s vague surprise, seemed to be female, though he supposed there was no reason they shouldn’t be. He didn’t really know enough about the way Elves did things to know whether they cared about things like that or not. Armethalieh certainly did, but the way Armethalieh did things wasn’t the way Kellen wanted to run his life.

None of the other groups of Elves were in armor. They were all dressed just as Jermayan was—loose tunics, pants, and soft boots, though the colors varied from pale green to deep yellow to red. The ones in pale green were sitting in a corner, apparently listening to a lecture—Kellen recognized Alkandoran in that group.

Pale green for the youngest students, then.

Those in yellow were practicing simple forms and stances—as Kellen remembered doing a few times himself—with wooden practice blades under the guidance of a few of the red-tunic’d students. The few remaining red-tunics were sparring against each other, also with wooden swords, under the watchful eyes of other Elven Knights, all of whom seemed to be wearing some shade of darker green, though none was wearing quite the same shade that Belesharon was.

Kellen already knew that the Elves could distinguish a much wider range of colors than humans could, and he imagined all those colors meant something very particular. He only hoped he wouldn’t be expected to be able to tell what it was—he suspected that in comparison to the Elves, humans were practically color-blind.

Kellen turned his attention from the students to the building itself. The interior was the largest single room he’d ever seen. The ceiling was high—the building was actually closer to two stories in height than one—and a gallery ran around three walls of the room, with open stone staircases leading up to them on the two long sides of the building. Long windows without glass pierced the walls at regular intervals. They could be closed with heavy wooden shutters, but today the shutters were folded back.

Despite that, Kellen wasn’t in the least cold, and after a moment he realized why. Heat radiated up through the brick floor of the room, a gentle pervasive warmth that filled the air.

“There is a furnace in the chamber below this, that heats a network of pipes that warms the floor. It is one of the apprentices’ duties to keep it stoked—a duty that you will be spared,” Jermayan said with a faint smile.

Kellen grinned back. He’d chopped enough wood in the Wildwood not to be afraid of chopping more.

“It is a marvelous thing,” he said teasingly, “to have seen the Elven armies in their flower.”

“You think we are few,” Jermayan said shrewdly. “But most are in the field, and winter—especially this winter—is not a time when you will see the House heavily frequented. You worry too much, Kellen.”

“You worry too little,” Kellen said, stung to sudden honesty. You didn’t see herthe Demon Queen—you didn’t talk to her. The Endarkened mean to kill you all, and you sit here worrying about your clothes, and the proper time to let everybody else know they’ve got a problem

“Then teach us to worry,” Jermayan said gently. “And meanwhile, hone the skills you will need when the battle comes, as we both know it must. And learn what I could not teach you alone.”

He took Kellen’s arm and led him out of the entryway, onto the stone floor of the hall. Belesharon had concluded his instructions to the armored Knights, and turned to face Jermayan.

“I See you, Jermayan,” he said, bowing.

“I See you, Belesharon,” Jermayan said, bowing in return. “I bring you Kellen Knight-Mage, who comes from the lands of Men to learn what you can teach him.”

“I See you, Kellen- Knight-Mage,” Belesharon said. He did not bow, but studied Kellen with cold black eyes.

What’s going on? But this wasn’t the time to wonder about it. Kellen bowed deeply. “I See you, Belesharon.” He rose from his bow and studied the Elven swordmaster in return.

He’d thought Morusil was old, and until this moment, Morusil had been the oldest Elf Kellen had ever seen. But next to Belesharon, Morusil was a mere child. Up close, Belesharon’s bone-pale skin was spiderwebbed with the fine lines of age; his eyebrows nearly white. Perhaps Elves had run shorter centuries ago, or perhaps age had shrunk him; Belesharon was as small as a child, making Kellen feel lumpish and ungainly as he had not since his days in Armethalieh.

But no matter how old he was, there was nothing of infirmity about the ancient swordmaster. His eyes sparkled with alert intelligence, and his movements—as Kellen had seen previously—were lithe and swift.

“Well,” Belesharon said after a moment. “Staring gains only so much. Bring practice swords, Ciradhel.”

One of the green-tunic’d teachers hurried off.

“I don’t understand,” Kellen said. Always a safe enough statement when dealing with Elves.

Belesharon snorted. “When one undertakes to teach a student, young Kellen, one begins by judging his quality. We will spar. You will attempt to strike me, holding nothing back. If you fail in this, I will know. And you will no longer be welcome in my House.”

“But—” Kellen glanced at Jermayan with indecision bordering on agony, but Jermayan’s face was unreadable.

He remembered facing Jermayan at their streambed camp, and nearly killing his mentor and friend by accident simply because neither of them had been prepared for the scope of Kellen’s newly-awakened Knight-Mage powers. And Kellen still didn’t know their full extent.

If Jermayan had expected this, he would have warned Kellen—if that was allowed by the strict rules of etiquette that governed every aspect of Elven daily life. Kellen bit his lip, thinking very hard. He did not doubt for a minute that Belesharon was speaking the simple truth.

But killing—or injuring—the Master wouldn’t be a very good start either.

He bowed.

“Master Belesharon.”

“The fool speaks. Come, take your weapon and face me. Choose either.”

Ciradhel had returned, carrying two practice swords similar to the ones he’d seen the yellow-garbed students working out with. They were the length and shape of Kellen’s own sword, but made entirely of wood.

But even a length of wood could be deadly in the hands of a Knight-Mage.

Kellen bowed again.

“If you like, I am a fool. And you have trained fools and children for a very long time, so you will understand when I say that there is a saying among my people that nothing is foolproof, because fools have too much ingenuity. I do not wish to hurt you.”

He waited, holding his breath.

Now Belesharon bowed, his eyes twinkling with amusement.

“Such courtesy! Such respect for age! You rascals would do well to heed it, and have more consideration for an old man who is nearly on his deathbed. Young Kellen, your honesty and thoughtfulness do you credit, and I honor the truth of your words. Therefore, our contest will be closely watched, and if I am in danger, my students will intervene. You, however, must look to yourself.”

Kellen bowed again, and reluctantly took the sword that Ciradhel held out to him. He’d hoped to avoid the match altogether, but it was a good compromise.

He hoped.

Belesharon took up his own practice sword and strode to a practice circle marked out on the stone floor. Kellen recognized the dimensions as being equal to the ones Jermayan had marked out on the ground when his training was just beginning. The rules were simple: stay inside the circle at all costs.

For a moment Kellen considered simply letting Belesharon push him outside the circle, then dismissed the notion. If he didn’t do his best, the swordmaster would know. He had no doubt of that. The only thing he could do was to pull his blows as much as possible. Surely there’d be no objection to that?

Reluctantly, he took his own place in the circle. The four armored knights, swords drawn, took their places just outside it. They didn’t seem at all worried. Jermayan was the only one who seemed concerned—but then, Jermayan was the only one who’d seen him fight.

Kellen realized with resigned dismay that all other activity in the hall had stopped. Everyone was watching.

Grand. Either I end up looking like an uncouth barbarian, or else I do something like I did to Jermayan. And either way, I’m in trouble.

“Now we shall begin your education,” Belesharon said. He raised the wooden practice sword in a fluid salute.

Kellen copied the gesture, at the same time summoning up his spell-sight. At once there were two separate Belesharons: the living man, overlaid with a web of glowing red showing Kellen how he must strike, and a glowing ghost, indicating how Belesharon might move.

That’s never happened befo

WHACK!

Kellen yelped and jumped back, jarred entirely out of battled-mind in time to see Belesharon step back into ready position. There was a stinging welt on his upper thigh.

“Too slow, Knight-Mage,” the swordmaster commented mildly “Perhaps you still think to spare my old bones.”

Not any more, old man.

Resolving to ignore the peculiar doubling of his spell-sight, Kellen summoned it once again. No matter what else it showed him, it still showed him where to hit.

This time he struck without warning—the match was already begun, after all—but somehow, instead of a clean hit, he missed entirely. Belesharon swayed out of the way at the last moment.

Kellen paid no attention, moving on to the next target, and the next. But instead of one clear possibility, his spell-sight showed him a dozen, forcing him to think, to choose—

Forcing him out of battle-mind. Forcing him to be only Kellen.

Each time he summoned it anew, only to have it stolen away again. He realized as the match wore on that Belesharon could have hit him a dozen times. He realized everyone in the hall knew it too. The best he’d been able to manage had been to stay in the circle.

He began to feel a dull desperate anger. I’m better than this! I have to be!

Because if he couldn’t be good enough, people were going to die.

Focus!

He fed his anger into his magic, making it his tool. The enemy’s confidence was also a weapon he could use. Once more he summoned up his spell-sight.

Once again the patterns before his eyes were as confusing as before. Kellen ignored them. He reached beyond them, to their source, to the Gods that made the patterns, the Gods who sent both Knight-Mage and Wildmage into the world.

And struck.

There was a gasp and a hiss of steel from outside the practice ring. Kellen realized he had closed his eyes. He opened them.

His wooden blade was pressed against Belesharon’s ribs.

The swordmaster’s blade rested gently against the side of his neck.

The swordmaster withdrew his practice blade.

Kellen stepped back shakily, lowering his own blade. He only hoped he hadn’t struck very hard.

“A most instructive bout, young Kellen,” Belesharon said, bowing with no evidence of discomfort. “Of course, you would have been dead as well, but I think time and practice will remedy that defect. And now, if you will be so good as to don your armor, we shall see how you fare against multiple attackers.”

Belesharon handed his sword to the nearest Master, and turned to go.

Kellen barely remembered in time to bow. He felt as if he’d been running for several leagues. Uphill. Carrying Shalkan.

“This way.” Jermayan stepped into the circle and led him out through the gathered crowd. Half of them were staring at him as if he were a Demon Incarnate, and the other half were talking among themselves in excited whispers, too low for him to catch.

“How did I do? What did I do?” Kellen asked when they were away from the others. “I mean—”

“Never mind,” Jermayan said, waving away Kellen’s apologies. “I am merely grateful to have seen such an exhibition of technique. And… you hit Master Belesharon.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Kellen said. “I mean, I did, but—”

Jermayan slid open a panel in the back wall and ushered Kellen inside.

The room was much smaller than the one outside, its walls of wood, not stone, shallowly carved in an intricate geometric pattern. A moment later Kellen realized why, as Jermayan went over to a part of the wall and pulled it out, revealing it to be a drawer.

“Here is your armor and sword,” Jermayan said, lifting out the familiar pieces and handing them to Kellen. Here? What if I hadn’t passed Belesharon’s test? Arms full, Kellen headed toward one of the benches in the center of the room.

“If it had somehow happened that you were not found suitable for the House of Sword and Shield, it would simply have been returned to your home. But you will find it is easier to keep it here during your training.”

Kellen began removing his clothes, surprised to find they were sodden with sweat.

“I hope I didn’t hurt him,” he said, pulling on the leather underpadding for his armor.

Jermayan had opened another drawer and was removing his own armor. He stopped and looked at Kellen quizzically.

“You have no cause for concern. But it was… startling.”

Chapter Four

In Training at the House of Sword and Shield

WHEN BOTH OF them were armored, they returned to the main hall. Everyone ignored him so thoroughly that Kellen thought he’d rather have been stared at. The story of the bout was probably going to be all over Sentarshadeen by nightfall—in fact, given the Elves’ penchant for gossip, it was probably already making the rounds.

Jermayan led Kellen back to the teaching circle, where Belesharon was waiting with the four armored knights. Belesharon glanced up when he saw them, and his face crumpled into an almost comical frown of disapproval.

“This armor is a disgrace to the House of Sword and Shield,” Belesharon said. “I see no enamelwork, no gilding, no jewels. It is the armor of a brigand or a hill bandit, not a knight.”

Jermayan had said that direct speech, even questions, were permitted in the House of Shield and Sword, but this was rude speech even for a human.

And once again, it seemed to Kellen that the Elves were obsessed with something that didn’t matter. It was true that his armor wasn’t as ornate as Jermayan’s, but it was still beautiful in its own way.

“Forgive him, Master Belesharon, but it is the only armor he possesses. It was made in a day, and there was no time to finish it properly,” Jermayan said.

“Then let another suit be made, one more suitable,” Belesharon said irritably. Kellen winced inwardly. Jermayan looked great in gleaming sapphire-colored armor that looked like expensive jewelry. But he didn’t think he would. “Suitable perhaps, for an Elven Knight, Master Belesharon,” Kellen said. “But I am human; my people are simple, as am ! Please forgive my presumption, but as Elvenware is simple, yet a perfect blend of form and function, it seems to me that for a human, and for me in particular, there should be no more adornments than there are upon a perfect bowl. I am—my people call it a ‘virgin knight,’ one who is untested in battle. If one wears the map of one’s experiences upon the metal he is clad in, then mine should be unadorned. And—forgive me again, but I have an emotional attachment to speak of as well. This is the armor I was wearing when I found out I was a Knight-Mage. I should like to keep it just as it is.”

“The human child is bold and stubborn,” Belesharon observed to no one in particular. “He contradicts me in my own house. Well! Perhaps it is for the best.”

Kellen had the oddest feeling he’d just passed another test.

“Now. Dainelel, Kayir, Naeret, Emessade, and Jermayan will attempt to kill you, just as in a real battle. All swords will be in practice sheathes. I will award injuries. It is not necessary to remain within the circle.”

Ciradhel brought Kellen and Jermayan practice-sheathes—the others already had them. Jermayan showed Kellen how to fit the heavy leather sheath over his blade and bind it over the guard so there was no possibility of its coming loose during a practice bout. With these in place, even the lethally-sharp Elven swords were safe to use.

What does he mean, “award injuries”? Kellen wondered.

Then there was no more time to wonder, as the bout had begun.

His main advantage was that—having just seen him fight Master Belesharon—Dainelel, Kayir, Naeret, and Emessade were cautious about engaging. But the Elves knew how to work together as a team, not getting in one another’s way. Quickly they spread out, encircling Kellen, forcing him to defend himself from every side at once.

But unlike Belesharon, the images they presented to his spell-sight were clear and precise…

“Dainelel, Naeret, you are both dead. Retire from the field, if you please.” Master Belesharon’s voice came to Kellen distantly as he whirled to block an attack from behind, and turned about—too late!—to respond to an attack from Jermayan.

“Kellen, you have taken a disabling cut to the thigh. Drop to your knees, if you please.”

“What?” Kellen shook his head, not understanding. The other three had withdrawn, swords at rest, waiting.

“Kayir’s blow got through. I judge it was quite strong enough to have severed the tendons of the leg. You cannot stand, but you can still fight. Drop to your knees, if you please,” Master Belesharon repeated.

Feeling rather foolish, Kellen did so. Fortunately, the Elven armor was flexible enough to permit the move.

On his knees, unable to maneuver much, Kellen was easy prey, though to his secret delight he was able to “kill” one more of his attackers before receiving a “fatal wound.”

If this had been real, I’d be dead now, Kellen thought soberly.

Jermayan helped him to his feet.

“Perhaps you would share what wisdom you have gained this day in The House of Sword and Shield,” Belesharon said when Kellen was standing before him once more.

Despite aches and pains and the fact he was dripping with the sweat of exhaustion, Kellen grinned beneath his helmet. From the way his head hurt, some of his opponents had managed to land more than a few blows, though he hadn’t felt them at the time. Kellen’s adversaries had used their feet, fists, and shields, as well as every part of their swords against him. Only the protection of his armor had kept Kellen from collecting a spectacular set of bruises this afternoon, but his muscles were certainly convinced he’d given them a splendid workout.

“I have learned that I need to learn a very great deal, Master,” Kellen said honestly.

Belesharon smiled. “Good. Jermayan, take this callow youth to pick out a horse. And come early tomorrow, Knight-Mage. You have much to learn.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

“IT would be interesting to know why it is that I am going to pick out a horse,” Kellen said when he and Jermayan had left the House, managing to wrestle the question into the proper form with only a little effort.

“Naturally you expect to ride Shalkan for a year at least,” Jermayan agreed. “But after that, circumstances may change. And learning to understand the mind of a destrier is part of the training of an Elven Knight. I myself chose Valdien’s parents and saw him foaled. But Master Belesharon does not expect that of you. It is enough that you leam to ride properly, and to fight from horseback. You may need those skills. And if the Enemy moves into direct conflict slowly—perhaps it will be that you have ample time to pick your foal and train him before you see true war.”

The rain had settled into a gentle mist; not really unpleasant, and Kellen was quite dry inside his hooded cloak. Before they’d gone out, Kellen had followed Jermayan’s example and kilted his surcoat high above the knee, so it didn’t take on water from the grass.

As they rounded the side of the House, they passed the wooden buildings he’d seen before. Jermayan told him they were bathhouses, where students could soak away the pains of the day.

“It’s all beautiful, Jermayan, but it still doesn’t seem very… large,” Kellen said, trying to sound tactful.

Jermayan smiled. “The impatience of humans! Come, then, and see the rest.”

Jermayan led him past the bathhouses, through a stand of birches, standing stark and leafless now that the winter rains had come. Just beyond them, the ground sloped gently away.

“This is what you wished to see,” Jermayan told him.

What Kellen had thought was a small pocket canyon was anything but. It spread out before him, its farthest edges lost in the mist. From the top of the rise, he could look down on a whole complex of buildings, almost a second city, hidden in plain sight.

“The stables and the blacksmith’s forge,” Jermayan said. “The practice ring.”

There was a wide oval of white sand in the middle of the green, flanked by a complex of low buildings that somehow managed to give the impression of belonging. There were two bare fixed posts set at opposite ends of the oval; a lone horseman moved between them in a figure-eight pattern, his mount moving with slow deliberate grace. Beyond the stables and the outbuildings, Kellen could see more horses scattered across the meadow, indifferent to the rain.

“I wouldn’t have thought the House of Sword and Shield would have a lot of spare time to keep horse herds,” Kellen said, congratulating himself on making a question seem like an idle observation.

“The breeding of warhorses is the business of others,” Jermayan said absently, “and that place is not in Sentarshadeen. The animals here belong to Knights. Some keep mounts too old to ride beneath arms with them here, out of affection and to honor an aged comrade, instead of sending them back to the Fields of Vardirvoshan. And some of them are bred and trained as teachers; it is such a one I have in mind for you, for I think it would be just as well if neither one of you grew too fond of the other. Later, perhaps, you will come to Vardirvoshan and choose a proper mount.”

“Maybe,” Kellen said doubtfully. A time when that might be possible seemed unimaginably far away.

They walked past the riding ring. Jermayan saluted the mounted knight, but did not speak to him. Kellen could see that the knight was not using reins at all; in fact, the reins were tied up to the pommel of the saddle. Nevertheless, as the destrier cantered, he was doing changes of lead and of direction without the knight using the reins to direct him. Kellen could not for a moment imagine how the knight and horse were communicating. Surely they could not be speaking mind to mind…

No, that couldn’t be it. In a battle, the knight would have every bit of his attention concentrated on fighting. No, there was some secret there…

He began to wonder how far they were going to walk, but when they had gone only a little distance past the riding ring, Jermayan stopped and looked around. Apparently he saw what he was looking for, because he stopped, raising his arm over his head in a purposeful gesture.

A few moments later Valdien appeared, three mares at his heels. The four animals stopped a few feet away, all of them regarding Kellen calmly.

“Ah.” Jermayan sounded oddly satisfied. “You keep exalted company these days, my friend,” he said, addressing his mount. “Now, Kellen, choose the lady who will be your companion and teacher while you are here at the House. This is our way; the experienced mounts teach the young riders, and the experienced riders teach the young destriers.”

Kellen sighed inwardly. He supposed this was like choosing his sword—any would do, but one was best. Only the sword had been a piece of metal, and the horses were, well, alive. And seemed to be regarding him with the same doubtfully assessing expressions as Master Belesharon had.

All three of them were soaking wet, and muddy besides, so it was hard to tell their true colors. One was grey, with a darker mane and tail. One was a strange pale red, a color Kellen had never seen before in horse, Centaur, or unicorn. The third was a dark brown with a brown-flecked saddle of white over her rump, long white socks, and a wide white blaze.

All of them were beautiful, of course. The ladies might be past their prime, but Kellen suspected they could still run any horse of human breeding into the ground and not raise much of a sweat. He was tempted to choose one at random, but he knew that would almost be cheating. Perhaps the Wild Magic could help him? He wasn’t sure how, since he certainly wasn’t planning to hit any of them.

“It is easier, of course, if one approaches the animals more closely,” Jermayan observed in neutral tones.

Kellen gritted his teeth. He suspected Jermayan was laughing at him. And he knew the horses were. Cautiously he walked toward them, hoping they weren’t just going to take this as an excuse to run off. The only real experience he had with horses was with Idalia’s mare Prettyfoot and with Valdien. Valdien followed Jermayan around like a large dog, but Prettyfoot would take any excuse to go larking off, and if Shalkan wasn’t around, she could take hours to catch. He knew these were Elven warhorses, but they didn’t know him from Great Queen Vielissiar Farcarinon, and if they were anything like Prettyfoot, they could decide to lead him a chase just for the sheer mischief of it.

Valdien stepped delicately aside as he approached. Kellen approached the grey, reaching out his armored glove and placing his hand gently on her shoulder. She lowered her head and sniffed at him gently. Kellen smelled grass and wet horse; strong, but not unpleasant.

As if that were a signal, the red mare and the spotted one crowded in, nudging and sniffing at him. Kellen wished suddenly that he’d brought treats for them, and stooped carefully to tear up handfuls of the grass at his feet, feeding each of them in turn. They took the morsels neatly and delicately.

Behind him, Jermayan cleared his throat meaningfully.

Oh.

It was time to stop entertaining himself and get to work. He summoned up his spell-sight, wondering what—if anything—it would show him.

As always, the world seemed oddly simplified, though Kellen could never quite put his finger on just how that was. It was almost as if everything that didn’t immediately matter disappeared, though everything he needed to see was there. He could feel Jermayan and Valdien behind him. He could tell that Jermayan was leaning against Valdien’s shoulder, and knew he would sense instantly if either of them changed position. He ought to find “seeing” things he couldn’t see unsettling, but somehow he didn’t. He guessed it was all part of settling in to being a Knight-Mage.

Now he focused his attention on the Elven mares.

The spell-sight overlay was subtle, but present. He could see the ghosts of old injuries and the faint symbolic presences of things he had no words for. Help me to make the right choice, Kellen said, without quite knowing who—or what— he asked.

At last, as he waited, a sense of lightness filled him. He reached out and placed his hand against one of the mares’ shoulders, blinking the spell-sight away. “This one,” he said, looking to see that he’d chosen the tawny red mare.

“A good choice,” Jermayan said. “Deyishene will serve you well. She has trained many a knight. Come, then.”

“Come, my lady,” Kellen said, a little self-consciously. Deyishene shook herself like a wet dog—a very large wet dog—and took a step forward.

“Come,” Jermayan said. “She will follow.”

—«♦«♦»♦»—

JERMAYAN led Kellen down to one of the stable blocks that flanked the riding ring. There, Kellen brushed and toweled his new charge dry—or at least merely damp—before going to help Jermayan select saddle and armor from the tack room.

“It will not be in your colors, of course,” Jermayan said, “and the colors here are… unfortunate.” He regarded a large shelf of neatly folded caparisons, the knee-length saddlecloths worn over or under equestrian armor, and the fancy rein decorations that matched.

Kellen saw red, gold, and two shades of green. The pale green wasn’t appropriate for him—he wasn’t that much of a beginner. He wasn’t sure whether Master Belesharon thought he ought to be wearing the gold or not, and he didn’t think it went that badly with the shade of green of his cloak and surcoat.

“But perhaps Master Belesharon will be inclined to be merciful,” Jermayan continued, real concern in his voice.

“Honestly, Jermayan, whatever you think is best,” Kellen said. “Maybe I could just skip this part.”

“It is necessary,” Jermayan said, in tones that brooked no argument. He sighed, and dug through the stacks of folded barding, obviously searching for something. “Ah. I had thought these might be here.” He pulled out a heavy bundle of white fabric, and handed it to Kellen. “Unexceptionable. A bit daring, but no one can quarrel with such a choice.”

Whatever that’s supposed to mean, Kellen thought. Oh, well. It must be just another example of the Elven passion for detail and protocol.

Fortunately Jermayan was with him, for Kellen would have had no idea of how to choose the right sizes of everything from shanfron and peytrel to flanchard and crinet, though he had saddled and unsaddled Valdien enough times to know exactly what items made up an Elven destrier’s armor, and how to put them on. Though the pieces were surprisingly light, they were bulky, and it took both of them—and two trips—to carry them back to Deyishene’s stall.

“Now let us see if you remember your lessons, and afterward, a turn about the ring,” Jermayan said implacably.

While Kellen worked his way—slowly—through saddling and armoring Deyishene, Jermayan made a far brisker job of preparing Valdien, rubbing the stallion dry, saddling him, and armoring him, long before Kellen had the straps and buckles adjusted and the complicated pieces of armor locked into place. He knew better than to hurry, though. Haste now could lead to a variety of disasters later, from saddle sores, to armor that fell to pieces, to a loose saddle-girth which could dump its rider from his mount’s back—which could be humiliating or downright disastrous, depending on when it happened. As he worked, Kellen talked to Deyishene, much as he would have talked to Shalkan, explaining who he was and why he was here. He knew she couldn’t understand as much as Shalkan would, but talking made him feel better. She kept one ear on him at all times, and occasionally uttered a snort that sounded as if she was satisfied with what he was saying.

At last the job was completed to his satisfaction. Kellen led his warhorse out into the daylight again.

Jermayan was already mounted, waiting in the middle of the ring. The other rider was long gone, but Kellen discovered he was not to be without an audience. Shalkan had arrived, standing nonchalantly at the edge of the stable block.

“Decided to replace me, have you?” the unicorn said blandly.

“Oh, uh, hello,” Kellen said uneasily. Shalkan had an unpredictable sense of humor. “This is Deyishene. Master Belesharon said I needed a horse. And Jermayan says I need to learn how to ride a destrier.”

Shalkan switched his tail. “Well,” he said after a moment, “maybe she’ll teach you to ride better than a sack of turnips afflicted with the gout. There’s a mounting block over there.”

“Thanks,” Kellen said glumly. He’d been reasonably proud of his riding skills, considering the fact that Shalkan moved more like a deer than like a horse—including covering ground with great bounding leaps when moving at top speed.

He walked Deyishene over to the mounting block.

It wasn’t that difficult getting into the saddle, but once he had, the ground seemed awfully far away. Shalkan was only the size of a small pony; Kellen had forgotten how far away the ground was when you were sitting on a horse’s back.

Deyishene took a few shifting uncertain steps, as if something worried her. Automatically, Kellen leaned forward, clutching at the front of the saddle to steady himself. Deyishene stopped dead.

“Sit up straight,” Jermayan called.

“And tuck in your knees,” Shalkan added. “And your behind. Rest your weight forward more. Pretend there’s a silk scarf between your leg and her, and you daren’t let it drop.”

So began Kellen’s first riding lesson.

Riding did not come as instinctively to him as swordplay had, but his experience with Shalkan, though very different, had built a good foundation (no matter what the unicorn said to the contrary), and at the end of a couple of hours’ practice, Kellen felt a lot more confident in the saddle. He was still a long way from mastering the intricate partnership of horse and rider that was ultimately required of knight and destrier, and as yet was unable to ask Deyishene to perform the more sophisticated maneuvers in her repertoire—or to be certain of staying in the saddle if she did.

After his lesson was over, Jermayan and Valdien demonstrated the things Kellen would learn in the future. Kellen and Shalkan watched as Jermayan and Valdien cantered to the end of the riding ring, then galloped back. Suddenly Valdien stopped dead and lashed out with his heels, then jumped, spun, and kicked out hard in the opposite direction. He reared up, lashing out with gleaming metal-shod forehooves, then sprang off his hindquarters, lithe as a cat, vaulting over an imaginary fallen enemy. He trotted around in a tight circle, then sprang forward, again leaping an imaginary obstacle from a standing start.

“I hope you don’t expect me to do that,” Shalkan said.

“Oh, do it if you like,” Kellen said magnanimously. “Just don’t expect me to be on your back when you do.” The unicorn could jump like a frog and climb like a mountain goat, but the display Kellen had just seen was mind-bogglingly impressive for a horse—and it certainly explained why the equestrian armor was as flexible and intricate as that of the knights. He wondered how long it had taken Jermayan to train Valdien to do that.

Through all Valdien’s acrobatics Jermayan had remained perfectly composed, sitting as comfortably in the saddle as if Valdien moved at a gentle walk. He cantered Valdien around the oval twice and then returned to Kellen and Shalkan.

“Of course,” Jermayan said casually, “it does take a certain amount of practice to manage lance and sword while one’s mount is engaged in such activity.” His tone was so dry that even Kellen recognized he was being ironic. “But as I do not think the Flower Wars will concern you overmuch, perhaps you will not need to concern yourself with the lance. Now it is time to see to your horse, then to your armor, then to soak the stiffness from your limbs. By then, it will be close upon lamp-lighting time, and you will wish to rest yourself in preparation for the numerous exertions of the morrow.”

And maybe when I get home, I can ask Idalia if anybody’s going to actually DO anything about Shadow Mountain, Kellen thought, suddenly remembering what all this training was for.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

THE walls of the Mage City of Armethalieh, called the Golden City, the City of a Thousand Bells, had stood for a thousand years. High Magick had built it, High Magick ruled every detail of its daily life, and the High Council labored tirelessly to make sure that for its citizens, every day was much like every other—and that no one could imagine a time when that would not be so.

Except for a tiny minority among the ruling council of High Mages, their memories hedged about with wards and spells, no one knew the history of Armethalieh. None of her citizens could imagine a time before her walls had risen, a time before wealth poured into her coffers from carefully-controlled trade with all the world—a world which was nevertheless barred from walking her streets, for Armethalieh was, first and foremost, a city for Armethaliehans, and outsiders were not tolerated. Her wealth, her privileges, and her magick were for her citizens alone… and, in judicious moderation, for the Home Farms, those lands just outside the Western Gate that provided the crops that fed the Golden City’s teeming multitudes.

Or so matters had stood until recently.

Change had come to the Golden City.

The City was ruled by her Mages, and the Mages were ruled by the High Council. The High Council was ruled by the Arch-Mage, but the twelve High Mages who shared the dignity of a seat on the Council all looked to the day when one of them might supplant him, and now that Arch-Mage Lycaelon Tavadon’s son and heir had been Banished for practicing the forbidden Wild Magic, Lycaelon’s control over his fellows was less than absolute. Each of them looked to consolidate his own power, to make himself the next Arch-Mage of Armethalieh… and soon. Usually the Arch-Mage had to die before the power passed to another—but not always.

And there were those who thought that it might be no bad thing for Lycaelon Tavadon to be… persuaded… to retire.

Of the twelve, High Mage Volpiril was the most ambitious. When Lycaelon’s bid to annex the Western Hills collapsed in disaster, Volpiril had suggested—in a direct, though veiled, attack upon Lycaelon—that the Council withdraw its borders to the walls of Armethalieh herself, abandoning their claim on not only the Western Lands, but the Home Farms.

The Council, rattled by its mysterious defeat and swayed by Volpiril’s speechmaking, had voted its assent. Lycaelon could not overrule them, though he had taken a grim pleasure in casting the lone dissenting vote.

Some of the villagers greeted the news that they were no longer the property of the City—and might set what prices they liked for what had once been Armethalieh’s by right—with cheers of delight. Others, more perceptive, were quick to see that if Armethalieh’s control was withdrawn, so was her magick. There would be no more healing for the villagers, no pest control or destruction of blight, no preservation for their grain storage, no certainty of favorable weather for planting and harvest.

The petitions piled higher on Lycaelon’s desk each day, arriving with each cart of overpriced produce and gaggle of hysterical rustics until, with a malicious sense of justice, Lycaelon had set Volpiril to deal with the matter, reminding the High Mage that it was a violation of Armethaliehan law to expend her magick for the benefit of anyone but her citizens or subject peoples. And so, if the Delfier Valley farmers no longer belonged to Armethalieh, it was Volpiril’s duty to explain to them why Armethaliehan magick would no longer be employed in their service…

And in the marketplace, the prices rose. And kept rising.

It could not be helped. Through Volpiril’s vicious bungling, the farmers must now be paid for their produce. The City could absorb some of the cost, but not all, and not forever. So the prices rose, for everything from turnips to sugar biscuits. No one knew why, of course. It was not in the Council’s interest that they should.

And this year of all years, Lycaelon thought with a sigh, sliding the latest summary of reports into a drawer in his desk and locking it. The winter rains promised to be exceptionally heavy. It wouldn’t matter within the City itself, of course, where the Mages ensured that rain only fell late at night, and only in sufficient quantity to water the gardens and keep the cisterns filled. But there would be flooding in the valley this year. Undoubtedly that would mean a poor crop in the spring.

He got to his feet, cursing the stiffness in his muscles. He glanced toward the small office just off his own, but no light showed beneath the door. As it should be. He had stayed late, reading—and had sent Anigrel home bells ago. As he left his office, waving the Mage-lights to darkness behind him, Lycaelon could feel the faint hum of power from the Council chamber, where Mages worked tirelessly, as they did every night, weaving the elaborate and beautiful spells of the High Magick for the good of the City. He shook his head. Light grant a spell to preserve us from the maddened ambition of fools like Lord Volpiril, Darkness take him!

—«♦«♦»♦»—

MASTER Undermage Chired Anigrel—his abrupt increase in rank a sign of the signal favor in which Lycaelon Tavadon held him—regarded his new accommodations with a satisfaction he was careful not to display before witnesses.

The suite of rooms on the third floor of House Tavadon had had every trace of their former occupant ruthlessly expunged. Every stick of furniture had been sent into storage in the house’s vast attics. The walls had been scrubbed down and repainted to an even more marmoreal shade of white. Suitable furnishings had been acquired to outfit one of the two rooms as a comfortable—but not over-luxurious—bedroom, the other—the one with the excellent view of the gardens and the Council House—as a workroom and small study, and all carefully coordinated to be in the House colors of black and white. When the renovations were finished, no trace of the former occupancy of Lycaelon Tavadon’s Banished Outlaw son remained, and the suite appeared to be another perfectly fitted extension of Lycaelon’s taste. There was no sign of Anigrel’s own personality here. This was exactly as Anigrel wanted it. He wished for Lycaelon to think of Anigrel as an extension of himself.

Anigrel retained his rooms at the Mage-Courts on the College grounds, of course. It would not do to flaunt openly what everyone knew—that he now lived at Tavadon House, Lycaelon’s adopted son in all but name.

And perhaps, someday, in name as well, Anigrel thought, settling back in his chair. Lycaelon had no one else. Both his children had given themselves to the Wild Magic and been Banished from the City. And Anigrel had taken pains to make himself so very indispensable to the Arch-Mage over the past moonturns, though he was certain that Lycaelon—so innocent in his way!—did not know the half of what Anigrel did for him.

The Mageborn were greedy for power, and ruthless in their unending quest for rank and position. As Lycaelon’s private secretary, Anigrel saw many Mageborn every day, yet was nearly invisible himself; one more grey-robed underling doing the work of the City. It had been a simple thing to shape the opinion of the Mageborn with an innocent comment here, a casual observation there, and turn it inexorably against Lord Volpiril, so that the Mages now saw disaster in the High Mage’s ever-more-desperate makeshifts and pronouncements before the Council, and they saw it before the trouble actually appeared. As the situation in the City worsened, Volpiril’s position would become even more unstable. It was not impossible that he would be voted off the Council, though such a thing hadn’t happened in centuries.

And if actual shortages began to appear, then Lord Volpiril’s reign on the Council could be numbered in moonturns.

That would leave a vacancy.

Anigrel meant to have it for himself.

He was already a Master Undermage, elevated to that rank years ahead of time, and there was already talk—for once he hadn’t needed to start the rumors himself—that Lord Lycaelon would soon sponsor Anigrel for the tests to the rank of Magister-Practimus, if not Magister-Regnant. Either rank would be sufficient to allow Anigrel to take a seat on the Council.

Anigrel had no doubt of his ability to pass the tests. The difficulty all these years had been in concealing the extent of his power, not passing the tests his Mageborn teachers set.

For Anigrel’s power stemmed from a far different source, and his true teachers were far more powerful, and far, far more dangerous than any High Mage could imagine being.

It was the other reason he retained his rooms in the Mage-Courts, for there were things he did there that could not be done within the walls of the house of the Arch-Mage of Armethalieh.

There was a faint scratching at the door panel. With a gesture, Anigrel caused the door to dissolve. A servant stood in the doorway.

“Lord Anigrel. The Arch-Mage arrives,” the servant said, bowing.

Anigrel nodded, dismissing the servant as he got to his feet. The servant bowed again, and backed away the prescribed three steps before turning to go.

The servants might have treated Kellen Tavadon with indifference and contempt, but it had taken little effort for Anigrel to teach them proper manners in his presence. And just as he wished them to show him every courtesy, so it would not do for him to be remiss in showing Lycaelon every evidence of humility, deference, and respect.

Until the Arch-Mage no longer mattered.

—«♦«♦»♦»—

AND just now, a touch of appropriate distress was in order. “Lord Arch-Mage. You are weary.” Anigrel arrived in the reception room just as Lycaelon entered.

“Anigrel. I sent you to your bed hours ago,” Lycaelon said, looking—yes— gratified to see Anigrel.

“Some trifling matters occupied my attention,” the younger man said. “And I was… concerned by the burdens you bear for us all, Lord Lycaelon,” he added softly.

Lycaelon smiled faintly. “I am accustomed to them, my young friend. But perhaps, of your kindness, you will take a glass of wine with me in the library? After so many years of laboring in the Circle for the good of the City while the common folk dream, it still seems odd to sleep at night.”

Anigrel followed Lycaelon through the panel that led into the large formal library. Lycaelon seated himself in a chair beside the window—the long sapphire-blue drapes were drawn now, since it was night—and Anigrel went to the sideboard and collected a decanter and two glasses. The decanter shimmered faintly with the Preservation Spell that kept its contents fresh and unchanged, no matter how long it stood untasted and unopened. Ostentatious, and yet frugal; ostentatious to use a spell on something like a decanted bottle of wine, yet frugal to have the spell to keep the wine from spoiling after it had been opened, when one only wanted a glass or two at a time.

He set the glasses on the small table between the two chairs and poured them both full, handing one to Lycaelon before taking his own seat. He waited for Lycaelon to drink, then sipped his own wine appreciatively. A rare moment and a rare vintage, brought by Selken ships from Ividion Isle, the only place in the world where the salt-marsh grapes could grow. At least the Out Islands were not affected by Volpiril’s policies. This would not be the last such bottle obtainable.

Lycaelon laughed, his thoughts on a private joke. “Ah, if only the Commons could see us now, Anigrel—they would be shocked! They think we live on light and air and pure well water—and we do our part to keep them thinking that way, don’t we?” He drained his glass and filled it again, before Anigrel could do it for him.

“Of course, Lord Lycaelon. It’s unthinkable that the common clay should have any reason to criticize their masters. They’re happier that way,” Anigrel said. “Far better that they believe there is nothing to envy us for.”

“Of course they are,” Lycaelon said. “Everything we do is for them… and for the good of the City. Envy is a bitter thing, and would only disturb their peace.”

“Oh, yes. Of course,” Anigrel said, making sure his words rang obviously hollow. He sipped his wine and waited.

“You must tell me if there is something concerning you, Anigrel,” Lycaelon said. “It is not only the Commons that I serve, but my fellow Mages.”

“I can conceal nothing from you, Lord Lycaelon,” Anigrel said with a rueful smile. “But… you know it better than I, and I do not wish to add to your burden. And yet… you know that I hear what you do not, simply because there are those who will say in front of me what they will not say to the Arch-Mage?”

“I depend upon it,” Lycaelon said. “I do not think you can surprise me, Anigrel, and your words may serve the City. Tell me what worries you. Do not fear to offend me, for I already know that you love the City as much as !”

“You know that Lord Volpiril has—perhaps!—not acted entirely in the City’s best interests in a certain recent instance. At present, the circumstances are known only to those of our own class, but the effect of that action cannot be concealed. Many believe that soon these circumstances will become known outside the Mageborn. The effects of that knowledge could be… unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate? Disastrous!” Lycaelon nearly groaned. “There will be famine in the Delfier Valley in the spring—and no food available for sale to the City at any price. Yet that fool blocks any attempt to reverse his policies, saying they will bear fruit with time. Fruit! Oh, yes, and the fruit will be a bitter and withered harvest!”

Anigrel leaned forward. “Lord Lycaelon, do not let your merciful and charitable nature keep you from doing what must be done. To discredit Volpiril’s policies, discredit Volpiril first. Without him to goad them on, the Council will gladly abandon something so worthless—”

But Lycaelon had raised his hand, silencing Anigrel.

“To force him from the Council without the support of my fellow Mages would be a greater disaster than riots in the streets of the City. I shall seek that support, and pray to the Light that I find it in time. And now, I find I am weary, Anigrel. I give you good night.”

“Rest well, Lord Arch-Mage.” Anigrel got to his feet, bowing, and left the library.

He was not wholly dissatisfied with the evening’s work. He had planted the ideas in Lycaelon’s mind that he’d wanted to. Now Lycaelon was thinking about eliminating Volpiril before the City was in open rebellion against the Mageborn. All Anigrel had to do was give Lycaelon a good excuse.

And just as Lycaelon once had, Volpiril had a son.

A most malleable son…

—«♦«♦»♦»—

CILARNEN Volpiril was a perfect example of Mageborn breeding. All the Mageborn were slender and fine-boned, their bodies shaped by no physical labor more arduous than lifting a wand or a pen. Their coloration was vivid: black, blond, or red hair running strongly in particular Mage families; in this they stood out sharply from the Common-born, whose hair color was muddied with brown, and whose bodies were stockier than those of the pure-blooded Mages. Oh, from time to time one with Mage talents arose in a common family, but such were marked by their very appearance as Commons-born, and though it would never be openly acknowledged, that appearance would keep them from rising far within the ranks. Perhaps, such a Commons-born Mage could find a pure-blooded daughter of an insignificant family to marry, and his descendants would be of an acceptable appearance. But for such a one—well, there were limits, and properly so.

The Volpiril line had auburn hair; Cilarnen could inspect the portraits of noteworthy Mage ancestors that graced the walls of House Volpiril and see his own russet hair and pale blue eyes depicted there with the precision of his bathing-room mirror. Only the styles changed, and that not by a great deal, except in the very oldest portraits, for was it not Armethalieh’s greatest boast that she was as unchanging as her walls?

His family’s history had been one of privilege, service, and High Magick for uncounted generations, and the niches in the walls of the family Chapel in House Volpiril were filled with golden alabaster urns containing the ashes of great Mages who had brought luster to the family name. Until last winter, Cilarnen had been serenely certain that he would follow in their footsteps just as his father had, rising quickly and pleasantly through the ranks of Adeptship—for his studies in the High Magick had always come easily to him—and seeing no other possible future for himself than one spent as a Mage of the Mage-City. A privileged post in one of the more important City Councils, inevitably, just as soon as he attained sufficient rank. A seat on the High Council, not impossible. And perhaps the Arch-Mageship itself, for Volpirils had held that post in the past, nearly as often as the Tavadons, and Lord Lycaelon Tavadon could not live forever…

But all that had been—before. Before his mistake; before his disgrace.

Cilarnen had two sisters, much younger, who were being carefully groomed to someday take their places as the pliant dutiful wives of his peers, but they scarcely mattered to his carefully-ordered life, his sisters having been placed under the care of nurses and governesses—and Cilarnen’s distant, well-bred, Mage-born mother—from the time they could walk. Dialee had been born when he was six, and Eshavi when he was eight, and Cilarnen, encouraged by his father, had already been looking toward the future, toward the day when he could pledge himself as a citizen of Armethalieh and begin his studies in High Magick.

Women had no place in the life of a young Mage. Students did not marry, did not court, did not admit the existence of women. Nor did Apprentices. A Journeyman might, but only after he had reached his thirtieth year, if his patron gave him permission, and only if he had decided he did not wish to advance further in the ranks of the Art Magickal. Only if one advanced so swiftly that a higher rank than Journeyman was in one’s grasp, did a young Mage have cause to think of women before the age of thirty.

And even then, marriage among the Mageborn was not a matter of love, but of consolidating one’s position, of repaying past favors or of buying future ones, of choosing the best possible mother for future Mageborn sons. Cilarnen knew all that. Love was a madness that afflicted the unGifted, a sickness of the magickless Commons who thronged the streets of the City outside the Mage Quarter. His kind were above such things.

Then he saw Lady Amintia.

It was quite by accident. He’d come home unexpectedly in the middle of the day—a spell had gone awry during the morning lessons, and his tutor had fallen ill and been unable to see him for his afternoon’s private lesson. On a rare whim, he’d decided to go riding instead, and gone home to change.

His rooms overlooked the gardens of House Volpiril. He’d gone to the windows and opened them, stepping out onto the small balcony, and as he did, he stepped through the Silence spell that shielded his rooms, and heard peals of laughter coming from the garden below.

He looked down.

The garden was filled with females.

He recognized none of them—though logically, two of them must be his sisters. There were perhaps two dozen of them, all running about in a fashion Cilarnen himself had given up a dozen years before, playing some sort of elaborate game of touch-and-run, crying out and laughing as they scored off one another. Their faces were flushed and shiny with exertion, their hair tumbled down around their shoulders, their City-Talismans—the golden rectangle of citizenship that every citizen of Armethalieh wore—flying to the ends of golden throat-chains and colored neck-ribbons as they played. Shawls and scarves were scattered about the grass like strange drifts of brightly-colored mist. Along one wall of the garden, a long table stood, severe and correct in white linen, its burden of refreshments awaiting the moment when the ladies tired of their fun.

Cilarnen blinked, feeling almost as if he had opened one of the Forbidden Books and read something he was not meant to see. He looked away from the others and saw… her.

She did not join in the jostling games of the others, but stood watching them, her back to the base of the enormous magnolia tree that dominated the Volpiril garden. Her raven hair was bound neatly and suitably at the base of her neck, and just as Cilarnen looked down, she looked up. Her eyes were such an intense shade of blue he could see their color clearly, even across the garden.

He did not know what he expected her to do. Like all proper young Mage-born youths, Cilarnen had barely even seen a woman of his own class. But she simply regarded him, saying nothing, and doing nothing to draw unwelcome attention to him.

“Amintia! Come join us!”

One of the others called her name, and she looked away, shaking her head and smiling gently. Cilarnen backed into his room, blushing in hot confusion as the blessed silence of the Shielding Spells enfolded him once more. He touched his own City-Talisman on its jeweled chain, pressing the cool metal against his skin.

What had just happened?

He didn’t know. But he liked it. He went to the window again, taking care to stay well within the spells. Here he could see out without being seen. He stood at the window, watching, until the garden was empty, his plans for the afternoon forgotten.

—«♦»—

IT was easy enough to find out who she was. His father kept a comprehensive genealogy of the Mageborn families in his library, and the Mageborn did not repeat names within generations. She was Lady Amintia of House Amaubale. Lord Amaubale was a Mage who served on the Council of Public Safety; she had two brothers, Nathuren and Pretarkol, who were several years behind Cilarnen at the Mage College.

She was someone House Volpiril might ally itself with—someone he might have. But not for years—an unimaginable number of years, more years than he had already lived. And what if her father bestowed her elsewhere in the interim?

It was an unbearable thought, and one that began to obsess him as the sennights passed. His studies suffered—if only a little—by his distraction. He even disgraced himself so far as to seek out the Amaubale residence and walk past it. Once.

And at last, he came up with a plan.

He would seek his father’s agreement to a betrothal. That would solve all his problems. No one else would marry Amintia. She would be his, waiting for him until the day when he was prepared to claim her. It was the perfect solution to his problem—his obsession.

Unfortunately, his father did not agree.

Once each sennight, Cilarnen was accustomed to receive a private audience with his father, so that he could make an informal account to Lord Volpiril of his progress with his studies—though of course his father received detailed reports from his tutors—and give Lord Volpiril his own assessment of his current, and perhaps future, rivals. Generally these occasions had been relatively pleasant affairs, with Lord Volpiril taking the opportunity to make some small gift to Cilarnen—of pocket money, a book, or some newly-fashionable accessory—to indicate his pleasure with Cilarnen’s diligence. That audience seemed the perfect time to make his plea, and he approached his father’s study fully confident that he would emerge from it with all his troubles smoothed away.

He opened the door, and bowed. “My Lord Father.”

As always, Cilarnen entered his father’s private study precisely at the Second Afternoon Bell of Light-Day. So it had been since he had begun his studies in the Art Magickal, and Cilarnen could not imagine a time when it would not be so. His interview invariably lasted precisely two chimes.

He stopped before his father’s desk and bowed a second time. As always, his father was working, even at home and on Light’s Day. Lord Volpiril was a High Mage and a member of the High Council. His duty to the City was never-ending; this was a credo he had drummed into his son from the day Cilarnen could walk, talk, and perhaps, make demands on his father’s time. So from that time, it had been made very clear to him that the City came first, and Cilarnen a very distant second.

“Ah, Cilarnen.” His father looked up as he approached the desk. “So it is Light’s Day once again. What news do you have to bring me?”

For most of a chime Cilarnen spoke of ordinary things; his progress in his Magickal studies and his relationships with his fellow students. Then, quickly, he presented the matter nearest to his heart.

“There is another matter, sir, a matter of a young woman, my Lord Father— a daughter of House Amaubale. Her name is Amintia; I am sure Mother knows her. I believe—subject to your approval, of course, sir—that this would be an excellent alliance for us when the time comes. I know that it is far too soon for me to consider marriage—far too soon; I had not thought of such a thing before I saw this young woman—but she is—I find her—it is a good match. I have consulted the genealogy, and House Volpiril has married into House Amaubale in the past. So I thought, if you would consider it, perhaps a pre-contract—”

Intent upon convincing his father of the logic and worth of this plan, Cilarnen was not watching Lord Volpiril’s face. Then, with a scrape of his chair that startled his son, the High Mage rose to his feet, his expression furious.

“ ‘A pre’contract’? To think that I would hear such words upon the lips of my own son! Are we merchants or nobles? We are Mageborn! Magick flows in our blood! It is a sacred calling, one that requires the utmost dedication.” Volpiril’s face was flushed scarlet, and Cilarnen shrank back involuntarily before his wrath. “There can be no room in the thoughts of the Student or the Apprentice for anything but dedication to his Art. Have you gone utterly mad?”

“But—” Cilarnen stammered.

Volpiril’s jaw clenched. “Your tutors had mentioned you were strangely unwilling to apply yourself of late. I had meant to ask you the reason today! And now, now you flaunt it proudly, and dare to demand that I aid you in your foolish descent into emotionality. Where did you come by such a notion? Why, I would have expected this sort of nonsense out of a silly girl, not out of a well-educated son! Shall I remove you from school and dress you in a gown, next?”

Cilarnen flushed, his face and neck growing uncomfortably hot. He said nothing. He could not bring a single word up out of his constricted throat.

His father snorted. “It is fortunate you did not forget yourself entirely, and brought this to my attention before you made yourself a public scandal.” Lord Volpiril’s tone was harsh.

“I—But—It has been done in the past…” Cilarnen protested weakly. “Great-grandfather—”

“If you need no other lesson in why the companionship of females is forbidden to young Mageborn, consider your own actions today! Look what this has brought you to!” Volpiril stormed. “Open rebellion, daring to contradict me beneath this very roof! I will not have it! You, sir, may consider yourself on notice. And be sure that I will speak to Lord Amaubale and make quite certain his daughter never sets foot in this house again.”

Cilarnen felt himself grow as cold as he had been heated a moment before. Never to see her again! But—

“You have displeased me greatly today, Cilarnen.” Volpiril took a deep breath, and stared down at his son. “Very greatly. But you still have a chance to make amends. Apply yourself strictly to your studies. Reclaim your pride of place in your classes. Forget this cozening creature—no doubt she merely thought to entrap the son of a High Council Mage for her own advancement. Women are manipulative, secretive, and no matter how sweetly innocent they may seem, even the youngest of them is as adept at spinning webs to ensnare an unwary young man as any spider. When I speak to her father, I shall advise him to see her quickly married. That will put an end to her foolishness!” Volpiril said darkly.

Cilarnen stood, frozen in shock. Amintia—his Amintia—married to someone else?

“You may go, Cilarnen,” Lord Volpiril said brusquely, sitting down once more and returning his attention to the papers before him. From his demeanor, his son might as well have ceased to exist. All that Cilarnen could do was to bow, and take himself out.

—«♦»—

HIS father’s displeasure was bad enough, but far worse was the terrible inevitability that Amintia was going to be lost to him forever. Once Lord Volpiril put his mind to something, it was as good as accomplished. Cilarnen knew that if he was to get back in his father’s good graces, he must do as his father instructed and put her from his mind, but somehow he did not think that he could manage to do that without telling her—just once—how much she had meant to him.

He thought of writing her a letter, but after several attempts, Cilarnen gave up. He couldn’t find the proper words, and anyway, if he sent a letter to her house, her parents would read it first. His father read all of his infrequent correspondence, and Cilarnen had no doubt the custom was universal.

But he could write her a poem. An anonymous poem. That would be best, and safest, too. Poetry was one of the classes taught at the Mage-College, and Cilarnen was fairly confident of his ability to write something suitable, something that would move her heart, and perhaps make her pity him. Besides, ever since he’d seen Amintia, somehow poetry had made so much more sense to him than it ever had before.

He labored over his work for sennights, as winter passed into early spring, copying the final result out onto a slender scroll, which he tied with a silver ribbon. After moonturns of watching the house, he knew all of the Amaubale servants by sight. He would simply arrange to be in the Garden Market at the same time that one of them was there, and give the creature a few coins to pass the scroll on to Lady Amintia.

Then she would know that someone had loved her—not for her family or her position, but for her incomparable eyes, rare as blue roses, for her grace, for her quiet beauty, for all that made her the Lady Amintia.

The scroll had vanished before he could deliver it, and the next time Cilarnen had seen it, to his utter horror and humiliation, it had been in the hands of Mage Hendassar, in his History of the City class. Mage Hendassar had read it out loud to the entire room of students.

They had laughed. Laughed at him, at his weakness, at his foolishness.

Cilarnen would gladly have died. He hated Mage Hendassar, hated his classmates, hated his father—there was no doubt of how the scroll had come into Mage Hendassar’s hands—and most of all, perversely enough, he hated the Lady Amintia as much as he had heretofore loved her.

This was her fault. If he had never seen her, none of this would have happened. No female was worth such agony.

His father had been right.

Life might have been utterly unbearable if his father had ever made any reference to the matter, but Lord Volpiril did nothing of the sort. Of course, he had not needed to. The tale spread all over the Mage-College, of course, and might have hounded him for the rest of his years, if not for the fact that only a fortnight later, the Arch-Mage’s only son Kellen Tavadon was summoned before the High Council, and after that none of them ever saw Kellen Tavadon again.

This was a far more interesting scandal than a simple love poem, since not one of the students had the least idea of what Farmer Kellen might have done, and none of them was ever able to find out. Some swore they had seen Kellen working as a laborer down in the Low Quarter—as if that were possible. Others said he had fought with the Arch-Mage and been sent to live in one of the farming villages as a punishment.

All Cilarnen knew was that if people were talking about Kellen, they weren’t talking about him, and he was profoundly grateful. He had learned his lesson, and he would work harder than ever before to be the son his father wanted.

But somehow it did not seem to be possible. Because from that moment on, nothing, nothing that he did was ever good enough.

Spring became summer. Lord Volpiril’s temper was always short these days. No matter what Cilarnen did, his father only told him he must do better, in ever-harsher words of criticism. And all of it was so unjust! He was trying! He was at the top of several of his classes! His tutors all voiced themselves satisfied with him! Yet his father acted as if he was putting forth no effort whatsoever. Cilarnen seethed with resentment under the unjust critique. And he began to wonder if it was not he who was at fault, somehow failing, but his father.

The sons of the other Council Mages whispered fantastic gossip of unrest on the High Council, of great plans afoot.

Cilarnen did not know what they were, of course. Volpiril did not speak of them, and the days when Cilarnen might bring the rumors to his father and ask for more information were long gone now. If Cilarnen had taken second place in his father’s concerns before, he now felt as if he had descended to last in priorities. He felt oddly lost, and somehow cheated.

If not for his tutors, he would have been utterly alone.

Like most young Mageborn, Cilarnen’s lessons included practice in dance and swordplay as well as in the Art Magickal. He had little practical use for either, but both were good exercise, and the practice of the Art Magickal was an arduous business, requiring great stamina, both mental and physical.

Three times a sennight he went to Master Kalos’s salon at the edge of the Mage Quarter for his lessons in reed-blade.

The sword he studied there was nothing like the ponderous steel weapons the Militia carried, and certainly nothing like the wide heavy blades used in High Magick. The reed-blade was an elegant thing, smaller than his little finger at its base and tapering to a blunt, squared-off point. It was used to touch one’s opponent, elegantly, and in the proper style. Special Talismans worn by each of the combatants ensured that the blades could not go awry and accidentally strike outside the permitted target zones.

It was incredibly hard to score according to Master Kalos’s exacting specifications, and at the end of each bell-and-a-half lesson, Cilarnen was as exhausted as if he’d spent the entire time running around the inside of the enormous hall, instead of standing nearly still attempting to hit a man with a length of metal he could balance on two fingers. But Master Kalos praised lavishly for each improvement, and told Cilarnen he could have made a fine swordsman, if he had not had the misfortune to be born a Mage.

A joke, of course, and Cilarnen had smiled dutifully. Master Kalos’s odd sense of humor was well known.

For one of the sennightly lessons he saw Master Kalos alone, for the other two, he was part of a class of about twenty other young Mageborn. Since the classes were grouped by skill, not age, Cilarnen soon found himself among not only some of his fellow students, but grouped with some older Mageborn as well. They treated Cilarnen with casual good-fellowship, as if he were one of them. He found it an odd and interesting experience to be in a place where rank very nearly didn’t matter.

It did, of course. Lord Volpiril’s only son would be a fool to believe otherwise. Bur the illusion was comforting, and for a little while, he could pretend that he actually had people around him he could call “friend.”

—«♦»—

HIS dancing teacher was Lord Nendimos, a Mage who specialized not only in teaching dance, but in the history of dance, and the magic of dance, a series of lectures that one must be a Journeyman-Apprentice to sit for.

Lord Nendimos was a Journeyman-Undermage. He had been a Journeyman‘ Undermage since long before Cilarnen had been born, and would never rise higher in the ranks, though his power and his knowledge outstripped many of his betters, and if he could only have gained the sponsorship to do so, he could have passed a dozen of the qualifying tests with no difficulty whatever. Gaining such sponsorship might even have been possible, though difficult, for the same reason that Lord Nendimos was still a Journeyman after four decades.

Lord Nendimos liked women. He liked them as people. He enjoyed their company, their fellowship, and even claimed that some of them were his friends. He made no secret of it. When he was not putting the students of the Mage-College through their paces, he was dancing master to half the Mage Houses of Armethalieh, and there he was welcomed by the Mageborn women with—if he was to be believed—as much warmth as if he were a family member.

His fellow Mages regarded his eccentricity with dismay, and with resignation. But once they were satisfied that he would not pass on his bizarre tastes to their sons, they decided to tolerate his peculiarities. His family was old and well connected. His brothers were perfectly normal—and highly-placed. His sisters were married into some of the best families.

And his talents were too valuable to lose.

The dances of Armethalieh were slow, stately… and very complicated. It took time to learn them well—even more so since it was not to be considered that Mageborn sons and Mageborn daughters should learn them together. That sort of foolishness could be left to the Tradesmen, the Nobles, the Laborers, and all the rest who lived lives of foolish self-indulgence.

Dancing practice was held in the auditorium at the northern end of the quadrangle. Students were grouped by age, not academic rank, and drilled, endlessly, in the set figures of Armethaliehan dance, taking the roles of the “sun” or the “moon” in turn.

Once a Student reached his fifteenth year, attendance was no longer mandatory, but Cilarnen had chosen to continue because he found the class interesting and even pleasurable. At this point, his class was made up of the older students and Apprentices and even a few Tutors. He enjoyed the stately movement, like a slower form of swordplay, and Nendimos drilled this oldest class hardest of all, for having had years to master the steps, he told them, he now looked for perfection of form.

When the music played, and Cilarnen concentrated on mirroring his partner’s moves, his mind on nothing beyond the moment, sometimes he felt almost as if he were a sort of living wand, tracing through the glyphs of a spell. He’d said as much to Lord Nendimos one day after practice.

The old man had regarded him shrewdly. “I trust you will come to my lectures when you are old enough, Lord Cilarnen. I shall save a place for you.”

But of all his teachers, Cilarnen’s most important was his private tutor in Magick. Master Tocsel had been his tutor in Magick since he had been a small child. The venerable Master Undermage knew everything there was to know about the practicalities of High Magick, from the simplest spell to the most abstruse conjuration. He had trained Cilarnen’s father, and his grandfather. He was certainly not a kindly man, but if Cilarnen was truly making an effort, Tocsel was endlessly patient. His one concern was to see his pupil do well. His feelings had been quite hurt during that period when Cilarnen had been unable to pay attention to his lessons, but to Cilarnen’s intense relief, his renewed efforts had been rewarded with praise and encouragement, and Master Tocsel had been willing to forgive Cilarnen’s dereliction, even when it seemed his own father would not.

“Mark my words, young Cilarnen,” Tocsel said one day as Cilarnen’s lesson drew to a close. “You will soon be a mere Apprentice no longer. It is in my mind to recommend you for the tests for Entered Apprentice the next time the Board sits. No more blue robe for you!”

There were three ranks of Apprentice: Student Apprentice (which Cilarnen had passed long ago), Apprentice, and Entered Apprentice. Of the three, only the last was entitled to wear the grey robe of Magecraft and cast spells for any purpose other than practice. Entered Apprentices still pursued their studies at the College, but they also worked elsewhere in the City, assisting Mages at their work.

“Thank you, sir! I—” He nearly asked if Master Tocsel thought he was ready, and bit back the question. Master Tocsel would not have made the comment if he did not think Cilarnen was ready. “I only hope my lord father will be pleased,” he said instead.

Tocsel made a rude noise, the privilege of age. “And why should he not be? You’ve come along splendidly. Not like the Arch-Mage’s son. Bad blood there. Oh, everyone knew it, but Lycaelon wouldn’t be told; once he set eyes on that ridiculous barbarian woman, nothing would do but that he marry her. And look what happened! Learn from his mistake, boy, and let your father pick your bride when the time comes. Emotion should never play a part in marriage.”

A bride! Cilarnen winced inwardly, though he was careful to let nothing of his feelings show on his face. He hoped he never saw another woman until he was as old as Master Tocsel!

Chapter Five

Secrets in the City of Golden Bells

WHEN THE BOARD sat, he passed its tests easily, and advanced in rank to Entered Apprentice. Lord Volpiril seemed to think it was no more than the consideration that House Volpiril deserved and was not due to any effort on Cilarnen’s part. This hurt, but Cilarnen was careful not to show it; the traditional celebration was held—House Volpiril’s consequence demanded no less—but to Cilarnen’s mind, the festivities seemed rather perfunctory, and he knew for a fact that every aspect of the event had been handled by Volpiril’s secretary, including the gift presented to him in Volpiril’s name: a fine silver-and-ebony Wand-case. Once he would have cherished such an item, thinking it had come from his father. Now he could barely bear to look at it, though of course he had said everything that was proper at the time. Whatever his private feelings, he would do nothing to diminish the consequence of House Volpiril in the world. All this would someday be his, after all.

As an Entered Apprentice, in grey robe and soft cap (to distinguish him plainly from Journeymen, who also wore grey robes, but hooded ones), Cilarnen saw far more of the City than he ever had before. He worked with—or more precisely, for—Mages in every aspect of their tending of the City, reporting back to the Master of Apprentices each time a Mage released him to be set to a new task. Cilarnen also began to make friends among his fellow Entered Apprentices, knowing that these would be his colleagues and confederates for the rest of a life spent in service to the City. Perhaps “friend” was not the right word; emotion didn’t enter into the choices he made for his associates. “Allies” would be more accurate. And the associations felt hollow. Unsatisfying as one of the puff pastries that looked so delicious and were nothing more than a dusting of sugar over a thin crust that fell to insubstantial bits at the first bite.

He could not name the day on which he realized that he would never again be readmitted to his father’s favor, no matter how hard he worked and what honors he achieved, but surely it was a blessing sent by the Light, for at about this same time, rumors began filtering down from the highest levels of Mageborn society that Lord Volpiril had caused the High Council to repudiate the City’s ancient contracts with the Home Farms, withdrawing the City’s boundaries to the walls themselves.

At first Cilarnen gave the matter little thought—what did the farms have to do with the City, after all?

But soon he began to learn. No one paid any attention to an Apprentice. His seniors spoke freely in front of him. Before long, Cilarnen soon knew what “everyone” knew about Lord Volpiril.

And none of it was good.

—«♦»—

“THE Light-forgotten fool will be the ruin of us all. Wand.”

Cilarnen lifted the instrument from the insulating cloth and placed it carefully into Juvalira’s hand. The Senior Journeyman began tracing the complicated pattern of a Preservation spell in the air as his assistant—another Journeyman; Cilarnen was far from being allowed to actually assist in a Casting as yet—drew a complementary pattern on the stone floor of the warehouse with a sword. Both patterns flared and settled.

They were working in one of the cereals warehouses near the Market District. The building’s spells needed to be constantly reinforced, for there were a great many of them—not only spells against vermin of all kinds, but spells against fire, damp, and leaks. Not only were there spells upon the building itself, but there were also a host of spells upon the building’s contents—a separate matter, each needing to be worked separately, and in a precise order. Spells against spoilage, against rot, and against the destruction of any of the myriad containers of the grain, for since it had all been brought from the farms or from Selken ships, it came stored in sacks and barrels, some as milled flour, some as whole grains.

This was Cilarnen’s first visit to this particular warehouse, but even he could see that it was emptier than it ought to be. There were empty spaces upon the shelves, stacks of barrels that weren’t quite even, a sense of vacancy that made him faintly uneasy.

“More incense, boy,” Thekinalo said curtly.

Cilarnen hurried to dip several carefully-measured spoonfuls of powder onto the glowing coals, chanting the appropriate spell under his breath.

“It’s hardly a surprise,” Thekinalo said, continuing the conversation. “They see a chance for profit now that they are free, and so our warehouses empty, and the farmers’ pockets fill with Golden Suns. And the price of a baker’s loaf has doubled in the last moonturn, may the Light defend us.”

“From Lord Volpiril and his policies,” Juvalira agreed, raising his wand again. “And from the Commons, should they ever discover the reason bread is so dear.”

His partner simply laughed, and lowered the sword to the floor once more.

—«♦»—

“SOMEONE must do something,” young Lord Gillain said earnestly.

At the end of their daily duties, many of the Apprentices gathered at a teahouse at the edge of the College. The Golden Bells sold nothing stronger than kaffeyeh, teas, and fruit juice, of course, but it was a place where Apprentices and the younger Journeymen could gather together and socialize, free of the constraints of their elders. And providing their elders approved, of course.

Cilarnen shook his head minutely, saying nothing. Gillain was a fool. His rash speech would get him into trouble someday—and soon, no matter that his grandfather sat on the High Council.

“What do you suggest?” Flohan asked, with a touch of sarcasm. “Do we petition the High Council? My cousin says that half the farmers in the valley are already doing that. The Council won’t change its mind and take them back.”

“Its tiny mind,” Gillain said, and there was laughter from the young men gathered around the table—some genuine, some merely nervous.

Only two didn’t join in the general amusement. Cilarnen, and a journeyman named Raellan.

Raellan had been coming to the Golden Bells for several sennights now. He was a quiet man, having little to say, but when he did speak, it was always sensible and to the point.

“I think that if someone wanted to change the Council’s mind about its policies,” Raellan said now, looking straight at Cilarnen, “he would have to be very brave, and very dedicated to the good of the City.”

“This is getting too deep for me,” another Entered Apprentice named Viance said hastily. “Let us talk of pleasant things. Who has tried the Phastan Silvertip that has just come in?”

The talk quickly turned to tea, and the moment passed.

—«♦»—

CHIRED Anigrel—known in the Golden Bells, and in a few other select establishments in the City as Master Raellan—left the teashop a few chimes later, well pleased with the evening’s work.

Few would recognize his face there and elsewhere, and to baffle those who might, the smallest and most subtle Cantrip of Misdirection cast over his features before he left his rooms ensured that he would not be recognized.

If Lord Lycaelon needed a reason to dispense with Volpiril’s services, Anigrel would give him one.

As well as the opportunity to rid himself of all other Mages who might prove to be—inconvenient.

—«♦»—

IF the specter of Shadow Mountain hadn’t been hovering over events, Kellen would undoubtedly have been happier than he’d ever been in his entire life.

He got up each morning while the dawn mists still filled the valley of Sentarshadeen, dressed, and, carrying his breakfast with him, walked to the House of Sword and Shield, eating as he walked. Sometimes Shalkan came with him, and the two friends talked of nothing in particular. The weather—it continued to rain, but Kellen was getting used to it. How Vestakia was settling in.

When Kellen arrived at the House, he would either change to his working clothes (he wore a distinct shade of green—not his signature color, either—a hue which had been arrived at after a great deal of debate, apparently) or into his armor, depending on what he was to work at that day.

Kellen was learning things that Jermayan had lacked the resources to teach him. To attack, and to defend himself against multiple attackers. And more—he was learning to keep the choices in every combat in his own hands, so that he could kill or not as he chose. Under Master Belesharon’s guidance, he was learning to trick an attacker, to stun or disarm him, to simply be elsewhere when the blow fell.

It was more than simple misdirection, far more than the feints and dodges that Jermayan had tried to show him. It was—well, if he had to put a name to it, it was a new state of mind. Part of the battle-mind, to be sure, but a state in which he could choose to be like a fish in the water. He could see where the fight was going, the way a fish could sense a rock in the stream ahead of him, and he could move with the fight, or around it. When he finally got the trick of it, it had all come at once; suddenly, the sense was there, and he’d slipped aside from every blow that the four other knights were trying to land on him, without needing to counter any of them. And the state of mind he had been in was so uncannily peaceful—as if it was a kind of meditation! It was only when Master Belesharon had called a halt to the fight and he dropped automatically out of that mental state that the exhaustion hit him.

“I would not toy with that, if I were you,” Master Belesharon said, neutrally. And Kellen had readily agreed. Useful that might be, if he were surrounded by attackers that he dared not strike at, but the effort this state took was greater than actually defending himself.

With his Knight-Mage gifts to guide him, Kellen learned fast, but there was always more to learn. There was the theory of war itself, not of knight against knight, but of armies in the field.

And so he was introduced to the two great Elven strategy games, gan and xaqiue.

Gan was played on a square board divided into 864 tiny squares. There were 144 counters, divided into six suits, and up to six players could play, though usually only two or three did. The simple object of the game was to be the last person with counters on the board. The complex object of the game was to win beautifully and with style. An opponent’s counters could be removed from play either by surrounding them, or by forcing them to the edge of the board.

So far Kellen had lost every gan match he’d played. But he was starting to lose more slowly.

Xaqiue bore a faint resemblance to shamat, which was played in Armethalieh. In shamat, there were two armies of playing pieces, each of which could move only a certain way, and the object was to capture the other player’s City.

Xaqiue was similar—in that one of the points of the game was to capture the opposing player’s pieces. But in xaqiue, captured pieces remained on the board, in the service of whoever captured them last, and the moves each piece could make changed depending on how many moves it had already made and what other pieces were nearby.

Kellen found xaqiue fiendishly complicated.

“It is no more complicated than a battle,” Naeret would say, when Kellen had been forced to resign yet another game in the middle, hopelessly tangled in a welter of moves and countermoves, and having managed to forget which pieces still belonged to him. “Yet you would remember that well enough.”

“I could get killed in a battle,” Kellen muttered.

“Yet all life is war,” Naeret said, setting the pieces out once again. “Perhaps it is all worth considering equally seriously.”

—«♦»—

BETWEEN sword exercises and games—though Kellen suspected that the Elves did not think of “games” in quite the same way he did—there were the lectures (though he supposed “instructions” might be a better word). Seen simply, these were tales of ancient battles—and just what he’d wanted to hear ever since he’d realized there had been ancient battles.

Seen another way, they were histories, or chronicles, or even guidebooks of a sort, filled with instructions and warnings.

Kellen shared these lectures with the novices, of course, for he had never had the opportunity to hear these stories before. He was fascinated to discover that they were not only stories of the Great War—what the Elves called among themselves the Second War—but the First War as well, fought so long ago that humans had not yet been civilized. It was oddly sobering to realize that the gentle, supremely cultivated Elves—so polite that they considered a direct question to be the height of barbarian rudeness—had been a warrior people since before his own folk had discovered fire. But perhaps that was the very reason why they placed so high a value on peace and civilization.

Most afternoons were spent with Deyishene, and Kellen was already a much better rider than he had been when he began. He’d ended up being introduced to the Elven lance after all. Though there was little likelihood Kellen would ever use it under combat conditions, learning to handle it—without breaking it— taught grace, balance, and concentration. Kellen had already broken half a dozen.

When he wasn’t actually busy at the House of Sword and Shield, Kellen was mindful of the promise he had made to Sandalon, and spent as many hours with the young Prince as he could. He even brought him to visit at the House of Sword and Shield—after obtaining Master Belesharon’s permission, of course— and showed him all around. There was no reason, according to Jermayan, that Sandalon should not someday train as an Elven Knight if he chose to.

Someday. If he ever gets out of that fortress before he’s got a long grey beard. If Elves grow beards, that is.

Ashaniel had broken the news to Sandalon that he would be going away to the Crowned Horns with the rest of the Elven children not long after the meeting at which the plan was decided, and for a few days the boy had been upset and unhappy. But Sandalon was very young, and as the leave-taking didn’t happen immediately, after a sennight or two the young Prince seemed to forget the matter entirely.

But today, when Kellen went out to the stables to Deyishene, he found Sandalon and Shalkan both there, waiting outside her stall.

The young Prince had obviously been crying, though his tears were under control now, and he smiled dolefully when he saw Kellen.

“I am to go—the day after tomorrow!” Sandalon blurted out, obviously unable to contain the unhappy news one moment longer than necessary.

“Oh.” There didn’t seem to be very much to say, but Kellen tried. “But there will be children from all the Nine Cities there—perhaps you will make new friends. I am sure that there will be at least one person who is almost exactly your age, and there may be more. Think, Sandalon, how good it will be when there are several others around you who want to do the same things that you do, and play the same games that you like!”

Sandalon was too well mannered, even at five, to contradict Kellen, but his face plainly said that he found the possibility highly unlikely.

“Will you… there will be a great many Knights riding with us. And unicorns, too! Maybe—”

But Kellen was already shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Sandalon. I’m just starting to learn all the things a proper Knight has to know. I still have a lot more to learn before I get to do something that important.”

Oddly enough his answer—meant in all honesty—sent Sandalon off into a fit of the giggles, and even Shalkan swiveled his ears and coughed, indicating the unicorn was trying very hard not to laugh out loud.

After a moment, Kellen realized why, and grinned sheepishly.

A short time ago he’d destroyed the Black Cairn, just about single-handedly, and now he was saying that something as simple as convoying a bunch of kids through peaceful territory to a well-defended stronghold was too difficult for him. And put that way, it did sound ridiculous, but a job like that was a lot more complicated than just riding off with Jermayan and Shalkan into the unknown. And Kellen couldn’t afford to spend the time away from his lessons.

“Go ahead, laugh at me, both of you,” Kellen said good-naturedly. “But Master Belesharon would not think I was a very good student if I asked to be released from my lessons just because something more interesting came along. I have a lot to learn right here. But I don’t think he would mind too much if we took tomorrow off to go exploring, just the four of us.”

“The four of us?” Sandalon asked doubtfully.

“You, and me, and Shalkan, and Vestakia. I thought I’d ask Vestakia to come with us—if you didn’t mind, of course.”

He’d seen very little of Vestakia since he’d begun training at the House of Sword and Shield—of course, Kellen had seen very little of anyone but his fellow students. Idalia had assured him that Vestakia was doing perfectly well, and understood the reason for Kellen’s absence.

But he missed the easy comradeship they’d shared on the road, and wanted to see for himself that she was okay. A picnic should be the perfect opportunity. And nothing could go wrong with Shalkan there to play chaperon.

“Oh, no,” Sandalon said happily. “Vestakia’s nice. And she isn’t nearly as bossy as Lairamo is.”

“Then it’s settled, providing your nurse and my Master both agree,” Kellen said, though he doubted Master Belesharon would have any objections to Kellen spending a day making Sandalon feel a little better about being sent away. “Now, want to come watch me practice? You might be doing this yourself someday, after all.”

“I will!” Sandalon said enthusiastically. “I’m going to become a Knight just like you and Jermayan, and win all the Flower Wars, just like he does!”

—«♦»—

LATER Kellen would look back at the day he spent roaming through the hills beyond Sentarshadeen with Shalkan, Vestakia, and Sandalon as the last truly serene day he was to spend for a very long time, but at the time he only thought of it as his farewell to Sandalon, and a way of making the child’s departure less painful. Though Idalia had told him that there was to be “a break in the weather,” in fact it had rained most of the day, but none of them had minded. When Vestakia had left him at the end of the day, Kellen had been unsettled by more than the strain of the thoughts forbidden by his geas, though Shalkan had kept him from getting into any real difficulty.

As he took Deyishene back to the stables, he found himself wondering if— and hoping he was going to have—a future that included Vestakia. He found himself simply wanting her company, quite apart from anything else. She was simply the best friend he had ever had: she was clever, she was kind, she knew how to have fun, and how to make it too.

But with the storm clouds of Shadow Mountain gathering on the horizon, he couldn’t quite make himself believe that any kind of future, much less a peaceful one with Vestakia in it, was ever going to exist. He wasn’t used to thinking that far ahead and he wasn’t used to feeling this—grim—about things. Idalia was the dour introspective one—and all Kellen’s attempts to try and get a grip on the situation only left him feeling troubled for no reason that he could put his finger on.

Fortunately Shalkan interrupted his thoughts before he sank too deeply into depression.

“The caravan will be leaving from the House of Leaf and Star tomorrow before dawn. You’ll want to be there.”

“I don’t know,” Kellen said, surprised at the suggestion. “Elves aren’t much on big going-away ceremonies, I thought.”

“No,” Shalkan agreed. “But you’ll want to see it, just the same. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you’re here in plenty of time.”

—«♦»—

THE next morning the unicorn routed Kellen out of his cozy bed in what seemed to be the middle of the night. It was still dark when the two of them made their way through the sleeping city back to the House of Leaf and Star, but the convoy was already gathered.

Most of the supplies that the evacuees would need at the Fortress of the Crowned Horns had already been sent on ahead. These wagons would only carry supplies for the journey, and the people themselves.

There were two wagons for the children and their attendants to sleep and travel in. They looked like houses on wheels, down to the softly-glowing colored lanterns hung from each corner, and were drawn by four mules each. Four more wagons carried what Kellen supposed must be supplies and camping gear for the rest of the party, and each of those had six mules hitched to it.

Kellen assessed the caravan with a newly practiced eye, seeming to feel Master Belesharon standing over his shoulder. It was true that a herd of thirty-two mules was a lot to take care of—and carry feed for—and certainly both the carts and the wagons could be drawn by fewer. But if some went lame on the road, there would be no place to get replacements. Better, Kellen supposed, to start with more animals than you needed than have to turn back.

Then there was a sudden drumming of hooves, and Kellen saw the real reason Shalkan had brought him here.

The Elven Knights had arrived.

And only some of them were riding horses.

The unicorns danced—there was no other word for it—as if the earth could not hold them down. They sprang forward, ahead of the horses, circling the wagons once as if to make sure all was well, then trotting off to stand in an easy formation a little ways off in the meadow while the equestrian Knights distributed themselves closely around the wagons.

“I thought you’d like to see that,” Shalkan commented.

The doors of the House of Leaf and Star opened. Kellen was too far away to hear what was said—he’d come only to see, not to intrude—but he saw Andoreniel and Ashaniel standing there, bidding a last farewell… not as Sandalon’s parents, Kellen realized, but as the rulers of the Elves.

Slowly the little party exited the portico and climbed into the wagons. The drivers climbed onto their seats, and the train began to move off. The Unicorn Knights stood watching it for a moment, the horns of their mounts gleaming faintly in the first pale rays of dawn, then trotted briskly after it, quickly passing the wagons and forging on ahead.

“Well,” Kellen said with a sigh, “I guess it’s time to go to work.”

—«♦»—

AT the end of her seventh Rising following that walk in the Stone Garden, Savilla was pleased to see that Zyperis had been driven half-mad with curiosity. He had wooed her favor with every gift and attention he could think of, including the gift of several of his own personal slaves to do with as she wished.

All this was most satisfactory, and in addition, proved two things. One, that he was still submissive enough to be malleable, and two, that his clandestine sources of information within her personal household were not as well-developed as he might wish, for if there had been some way for Zyperis to discover her intentions on his own, he would certainly have done it.

But having made her point, she was prepared to relent before he turned sullen. Besides, it was such a lovely plan that it would be a shame to have no one to share it with…

—«♦»—

THAT Rising, she commanded Zyperis’s attendance, and after the business of her courtiers had been dealt with, she drew him aside.

“I have a lovely surprise for you, my dear,” she said, her voice husky and playful. “Come with me.”

She took him to a small chamber nestled among her private rooms. Its walls, ceiling, and floor were made of ivory, intricately joined and carved. The walls were golden with age, for the room was very old; a place to summon visions and see what must be seen.

The floor should, perhaps, have been the same warm golden hue, but it was not. Instead, it was a deep brown, like old leather, for centuries of shed blood had permanently darkened it.

A small ebony table stood in the center of the room, and on it was a large shallow bowl carved from one piece of black obsidian. It gleamed in the light of the shining golden orbs burning overhead.

A naked human girl knelt beside the table, waiting with utter stillness. Her long blonde hair was elaborately jeweled and coiled on top of her head, and every inch of her pale skin had been intricately painted. When the two Endarkened entered the room, she did not move. She had been very well trained; one of those humans who was taken captive so young she remembered no other world than this, and no other way of life than service to her Demon masters. She had been Zyperis’s most recent gift to his mother.

“Fill the bowl,” Queen Savilla said, holding out a small ebony and crystal knife to her son.

He did not hesitate a moment; if anything, his eyes lit with avidity. “Come here, precious,” Zyperis said to the girl. He took the knife as the human slave got to her feet and stood as he directed her. He positioned her so she was standing in front of the obsidian bowl and he was standing behind her.

With quick precise movements, he bent her forward, turned her head to the side, and cut into the pulsing vein in the side of her neck. The bowl rang faintly as the girl’s hot blood spurted into it, and she gasped and at last began to struggle. Zyperis held her firmly until she quieted, and then lifted her body off the floor so that it would drain more easily.

“It does seem something of a waste,” he observed, watching the blood fill the bowl. “For it to be over so quickly, you know.”

“There’s very little sport in the tame ones,” Savilla said consideringly. “And we can enjoy her later. Filendek does thrive upon a challenge, and he has been complaining that I do not tax his culinary skills enough of late. But come. Now I will satisfy your wanton curiosity, my son.”

The bowl was full, and Zyperis tossed the girl’s body aside, leaning eagerly over the bowl of steaming blood. Savilla joined him.

“Show me what I wish to see,” the Queen commanded, staring into the bowl of shimmering blood.

The surface of the bowl shimmered, going from dark to pale. Faint shadows began to swirl mistily beneath its surface, then grew brighter as the images in the bowl steadied into mirror sharpness.

Zyperis looked into the bowl and saw a caravan of Elves moving through a wintry landscape. Six wagons—four obviously carrying nothing but provisions— and perhaps twenty outriders, at least a third of them mounted on unicorns.

“More Elves, Mother!” Zyperis protested. “But why show me this, when you have decreed that we must let the caravans pass unharmed, no matter how tempting the opportunity? And Elves, Mother—it has been so long since we have had Elves to play with!”

“Oh, yes, it is true that I have allowed the previous caravans to make their way to that annoying fortress of theirs unmolested. But unfortunately—for the Elves and their little Prince—nothing lasts forever…”

—«♦»—

THE party from Sentarshadeen had been on the road for nearly two sennights, and by now they were deep into the mountains. Although back in Sentarshadeen it was no more than early autumn, here the hand of winter rested implacably on the land.

The snowfall had already been heavy—only the unicorns found it easy going—and at the village of Girizethiel the party had transferred from wheeled wagons to sledges. Fortunately, the trail had been well-broken by the previous convoys.

The day was overcast, and it was snowing lightly but steadily, though the wagonmaster, who had made this trip several times before, said that the snow would grow thicker throughout the day. Visibility was already bad, with the prankish wind whipping up veils of powdered snow and carrying them through the air to cloud the sight.

If they had not been where they were, Ciradhel would have been more concerned about a possible ambush, but the Fortress of the Crowned Horns was well within the borders of the Elven Lands, and all patrols had reported the land secure for moonturns. Ciradhel was more worried about keeping his young charges from getting into trouble along the way.

Kalania was no more than a babe in arms, and Hieretsur kept her young charge well under wraps. And Tredianala was a shy girl, who stayed close to her nurse and rarely ventured away from the wagons at any time.

But her cousin Merisashendiel was her opposite in every way, always underfoot and into everything, wanting to explore at every stop, no matter how brief it was. She and Vendalton were partners in every kind of innocent mischief, and wherever the two of them led, Prince Sandalon would inevitably follow. Ciradhel found it hard to begrudge the youngsters their youthful high spirits, for it was hard for them, he knew, to travel such a long distance to live in a strange place when you were so very young.

As for Alkandoran, he had already begun his training as a Knight, and had argued long and hard that he should be allowed to remain to defend Sentarshadeen against possible attack. But he was far too young—little though he thought it—so over his protests he had joined the others. He continued to let his unhappiness be felt, despite Ciradhel’s assurances that his knightly training could continue at the fortress.

Ciradhel clucked to Jilka, and the Elven mare trotted forward over the snow to where Rhavelmo sat upon Calmeren, waiting for the convoy to make its slow way past.

The unicorn’s white coat was a perfect match for the snow. Where it was not covered by the saddle and armor, it was fluffed out against the cold, giving the little creature a downy appearance that almost made the unicorn seem insubstantial. Her horn glistened like ice.

“Another day, and we’ll be rid of them,” Rhavelmo said, looking up at him. Her rose-colored armor and cloak were already powdered with a fresh fall of snow. “We should reach the Crowned Horns by midday. Evening at the latest. Look. You can already see it—or you could if not for this blasted weather.”

She pointed.

Automatically, Ciradhel looked. All that was to be seen was white, and more white, but he had been here many years before, and let imagination show him what his eyes could not.

The Fortress of the Crowned Horns did not occupy the highest peak in the Mystral Range, but as Idalia had told Kellen, it had never been taken by an enemy, nor could it be.

The fortress had been carved out of the living rock thousands of years past, in the days when the Elves had faced the Endarkened for the very first time. The surface of the mountain had been made too steep and smooth for a dragon to land upon it, and the very top of the fortress—the only level place—was too small and too well-defended to be accessible by Dark-tainted dragons. The only access to the fortress was up a long narrow causeway that led to the outer gates. The causeway was so narrow that only one cart could travel up it at a time, and at need, the defenders had a hundred ways of rendering it completely impassable.

“It will be faster going back, too, if we don’t have to wait for the wagons,” Calmeren said hopefully, switching her tail to shake it free of snow.

“Faster even with the wagons,” Ciradhel pointed out. “Since they’ll be all but empty. And we can’t leave them unprotected. Even if there aren’t—”

“Wait,” Calmeren said. The unicorn shifted, raising her head and turning into the wind. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply.

Suddenly there was a faint howl in the distance, a single eerie ululating wail. It hung alone on the air for a moment, and then was joined by others, a chilling wolflike chorus.

But all three of them knew that whatever creature had made that sound, it wasn’t a wolf.

“We have to run,” Calmeren said. “Now

Neither of the Knights considered doubting the unicorn’s word. There would be time for questions and incredulity later, when—if—they were all safe. Ciradhel cast one despairing glance at the wagons. They could not possibly move any faster, especially in this weather.

“Bring in the unicorns—quickly. We’ll put the children on them,” he said.

Calmeren and Rhavelmo sprang away, and Ciradhel turned Jilka back to the wagons.

“Stop the wagons. Everyone out. Bring your cloaks. Tuika—Henele—unhitch the teams as fast as you can. Cut the harness if you have to. Naeret—Emessade—get the children onto the unicorns. We have to run for it.”

He swung down off Jilka’s back and strode forward, running tallies in his head. Seven unicorns—six children. Each of the unicorn-mounted Knights could take one of the children—Kalania could go in her nurse’s arms—and they would send Sandalon’s nurse on the last of them. That left thirteen warhorses, seven of which would have to carry an extra passenger, but no one would be left behind for whatever was making that howling noise.

“This is most unexpected,” Hieretsur protested, coming down the steps of the wagon with Kalania in her arms.

“There is no time to explain,” Ciradhel snapped. Calmeren had returned with the others, and he seized the nurse and deposited her on the unicorn’s back.

“Run,” he said.

“Like the wind,” Calmeren agreed, and bounded off.

There was another chorus of howls—closer—and this time everyone heard it.

“One presumes that is what we are running from,” Naeret said, her nervousness showing in her stone-like expression. She settled Vendalton in front of Vikaet’s rider and the black unicorn took off after the others.

“Yes,” Ciradhel said briefly.

Now only Sandalon and Lairamo were left.

“I will see you again soon,” Lairamo said firmly, setting Sandalon into the saddle in front of Dainelel. His unicorn sprang into motion the moment the boy was settled, following the others.

Lairamo looked at Ciradhel. “Perhaps—” she began.

“He will need you. Go.”

Lairamo climbed carefully up behind the last of the Unicorn Knights, and it followed the rest.

Getting the children onto the unicorns had been the work of moments, and it had taken easily as long to finish unhitching the mules and to get the wagon drivers and the rest of the children’s companions onto horseback. Now Ciradhel sent those carrying double off after the others.

The mules had caught the scent carried upon the wind, and though normally the most docile and well-mannered of creatures, they had been terrified. The moment they were free, they had fled across the ice, slipping and skidding in their haste to be away. Tuika and Henele had not been able to properly unhitch the last teams, and had simply cut the main traces as the mules fought to be free. Even the Elven destriers were agitated, looking to their riders for reassurance.

“What about the rest of us?” Naeret asked, falling easily into War Manners.

Ciradhel smiled at her, swinging up onto Jilka’s back and loosening his sword in its sheath. He looked around at his four remaining companions.

“I thought we might go see what is making that infernal racket, were you all so inclined,” he answered politely.

—«♦»—

THEY were barely a hundred meters from the wagons when the pack appeared in the distance, a shimmering patch of darker silver in the snow. Beyond it, the five could see a small army of moving upright figures. The sunlight glittered off their armor and weapons, and the Elves could see the faint shimmer of the magic protecting those of them for whom sunlight was lethal.

“Frost-giants—ice-trolls—and a pack of coldwarg,” Ciradhel said grimly. “All ancient allies of the Enemy.”

“How could they come here without our knowing?” Naeret demanded, her voice high with outrage and anger.

“The cold is their element,” Abrodiel, eldest of them all, said.

“Come,” Ciradhel said, spurring Jilka forward. “We must buy the others as much time as we can.”

—«♦»—

COLDWARG had been created by Endarkened sorcery during the Great War. They were nearly the size of a unicorn, with enormous jaws capable of ripping out the throat of a horse—or a man—in one bite. In the last war, the Enemy had needed to spell-shield them on the battlefield, for coldwarg suffered in the heat, and died when the temperature grew too warm.

But here in the mountains, they were in their element.

Ciradhel knew that he and his companions were doomed. It was a small pack—not much more than a dozen beasts—but five Knights could not hope to kill them all and the creatures that followed. All they could hope for was to kill some of them, and to buy the rest of the party precious time to escape.

And because they were trying to stop the pack, not save themselves, they could not use the one maneuver that would give them any hope of survival: grouping into a tight pack to protect one another.

“Bows first, then swords,” Ciradhel said.

Spread out into a line, the five Elves charged down the slope directly into the coldwarg pack.

The frost-giants cheered when they saw the Elves, and their shambling turned into a trot, and then into an eager run.

The battle cries of the Elven Knights mingled with the howls of the coldwarg. They shot until their quivers were empty, but the arrows had little effect on the monsters, though every shaft found its mark. Then they drew their swords, and the battle was joined. The Elven destriers fought viciously, with teeth and steel-shod hooves, but one after another, they went down beneath the tide of dappled silver bodies.

Then it was the turn of their riders.

Ciradhel saw Naeret stagger to her feet over Ashtes’s fallen body. The crippled stallion was screaming and thrashing, trying to rise as a coldwarg ripped at his belly. Blood fountained from the stump of Naeret’s sword-arm, and as she fumbled in the snow for her sword, another coldwarg leaped for her throat. She went down.

One of the beasts leaped at Jilka’s throat. Jilka danced back, and Ciradhel struck at the coldwarg with his sword, feeling a hot flash of pleasure to see the blade bite deep into the hellbeast’s shoulder. The coldwarg sprang back, jaws gaping wide and pink tongue lolling. Its yellow eyes danced with a feral amusement. It’s only a matter of time, the beast’s gaze seemed to say. It turned and loped off in the direction of the caravan.

Ashtes had stopped screaming.

Henele was trapped beneath his fallen horse. Its head was gone. Two coldwarg were on him, one with its jaws clamped around each arm. They were pulling, shaking their heads and growling, like puppies with a toy. Henele should have been screaming, but he made no sound, and from that Ciradhel knew he was already dead.

They were all dead.

All but him.

Why?

He looked around.

The surviving coldwarg had broken off their attack to take up the pursuit of the others again.

And the marauders that had followed the pack had arrived.

“Nice puppies, to save one for Dalak,” the frost-giant said, giggling nastily, a high-pitched sound that sat ill with the giant’s size and bulk. “You go on,” he said to the others. “This one’s mine.”

Ciradhel used those precious moments to assess the enemy, on the faint chance he would ever be able to make a report.

There were a full dozen ice-trolls, all wearing Talismans to protect them against the sun, for they were creatures of night and caves. Their skin was the pale blue of pack ice, and they wore nothing more than a narrow loincloth, whether male or female, for they needed—nor wanted—no protection from the cold. Around their necks they wore elaborate collars of bones taken from their dead enemies, and carried bags which contained their hunting implements. Their main weapon was a bone atlatl, a notched rod with which they could launch polished bone shafts with deadly force and skill.

There were twice their number of frost-giants in the band, and they were formidable foes. The shortest of them was twice Ciradhel’s height. They had hair the color of frost, and pale eyes, and—unlike some of their cousins—no need of protection from the sun. Frost-giants were notable smiths and metalworkers, and all the giants wore articulated plate armor, well-padded with fur against the cold. But despite their ability at crafting swords, the frost-giants’ preferred weapon was the club, and it was a club that Dalak unlimbered now, swinging it back and forth as he smiled at Ciradhel.

The others grumbled at being denied a chance to watch the fun, but Dalak seemed to be their leader, and after a few moments of indecision they complied, lumbering off after the coldwarg with stupefying speed.

“Come, little Elf. I promise I’ll be gentle,” Dalak rumbled. “And you will reach the Cold Hells long before most of your friends.”

“And I shall wish the same for you,” Ciradhel said politely. He urged Jilka forward.

Dalak had superior reach, but Ciradhel and Jilka were faster. They were equally matched, and Ciradhel began to hope he might win. At the very least, every moment he could delay Dalak left the marauders without their leader.

But suddenly he felt a rushing presence above him, and a burning pain in his shoulders as great talons seized him, shearing through his armor as if it were silk.

Something lifted him from his saddle.

He cried out.

Dalak stepped forward, swinging his club with all his strength. It hit the side of Jilka’s head, and Ciradhel heard her neck snap.

Then Dalak reached up and grabbed him by the ankle. There was a tearing pain, a shrill soundless cry that lanced through Ciradhel’s head, and suddenly he lay upon the ground, looking up at the frost-giant.

Dalak put his boot on Ciradhel’s chest.

“Say good-bye to the Light, little Elf,” Dalak said, raising his club again.

And then Ciradhel knew nothing more.

—«♦»—

THE seven double-burdened warhorses ran over the snow in the direction of the Crowned Horns. None of the Knights knew what they fled from, but no one was foolish enough to disregard Calmeren’s warning, and all of them had heard the howling.

The unicorns were far ahead, springing over the snow at their fastest pace, one that no horse could match. Athonere hoped they and their precious cargo could reach the safety of the fortress. He cursed the fell weather. If the day had been clear, the sentries would have been able to see them. They might even have been able to see what lay behind the fleeing party.

But even if that had been true, none of them could have expected assistance from those within the citadel. The defenders would not have dared to come out, lest this be a trap, a ruse to lure them away from the children they guarded.

Just then Athonere saw a flash of movement through the veils of blowing snow, as a sinuous rill of silver fur flowed over the snow, easily passing the galloping horses.

They seemed to be monstrous misshapen wolves. Some of them were bleeding from fresh sword cuts, and several had the stumps of Elven arrows protruding from their necks and shoulders, but despite the blood that starred the snow in their wake, they moved with terrifying fleetness.

No. Not wolves. Coldwarg.

Athonere risked a glance behind him—and saw, over his passenger’s shoulder, a host of squat bluish creatures running toward them, moving nearly as fast as the galloping horses. Without slowing, they began to hurl objects toward the mounted Knights.

The woman clinging to Athonere’s back screamed. She thrashed frantically for a moment, then fell from the saddle before he could catch her.

One of the horses beside Athonere grunted heavily and went down, its hind legs tangled in a contraption of stones and leather cord. The force of its fall spilled both the Knight and his passenger into the snow with stunning force.

Athonere reined in, turning back. His passenger was lying in the snow, three shafts protruding from her back, dead. Screams—Elven and animal—told him that more ice-troll shafts were finding their mark. Their only safety lay in attack, lest more of their charges be slaughtered as they fled.